Gray must prevent scandals or risk losing dream to help eastern part of District

Robert McCartney
Columnist March 30, 2011

Apublic hearing in the afternoon and a speech Monday night displayed the problem with, then the promise of, District Mayor Vince Gray’s young administration.

Testimony at the 7½-hour D.C. Council hearing provided a disheartening portrait of a mayor’s office determined to find good-paying city jobs for political friends and their children at whatever cost.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

A top personnel official testified that when she raised concerns about nepotism, she was told to hire the kids anyway. For some patronage appointments, a goal appeared to be to pay the highest possible amount, even as the city struggles to overcome a $325 million budget deficit.

“I was told to place everybody” at the salary cap, said Judy Banks, interim director of the Department of Human Resources. Pay exceeded the ceilings in some instances, although that’s now been corrected.

The evening, however, offered a more encouraging picture. In his first State of the District address, to a packed audience at Eastern High School near RFK Stadium, Gray confidently outlined an agenda for investing in the less-prosperous eastern half of the city.

He urged more job training and education reform to combat “social pathology” east of the Anacostia River. Gray said that would ultimately benefit the whole city, because too much is now spent to deal with the effects of unemployment, low graduation rates and other ills.

At the same time, Gray said the government needs to be “lean and efficient.” He warned that “deep cuts” are coming in social programs and applauded new policies designed to end dependency on welfare.

I would love to see Gray’s strategy succeed and create the “One City” that has been his slogan since last year’s campaign. But I have my doubts. Some clearly bad hires have distracted attention from many good ones, like the choice to keep D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier.

Gray’s dream is going to be strangled in its cradle if city government is burdened by suspicious hiring and excessive pay for political allies and their offspring. It wastes money, and it undermines public trust.

“Some people moved from the 4th floor to the 5th floor [of city hall] and got $35,000 [more]. How does it look to people who pay the bills?” council member Muriel Bowser said at the hearing.

Those would be the taxpayers.

Then there’s the most suspicious hire of all: the Health Department job given to Sulaimon Brown, who was a minor mayoral candidate. The ominous question is whether that scandal is going to cripple the Gray administration or just embarrass it to no end.

Brown has said that the Gray campaign promised him a job and slipped him cash in envelopes in exchange for ranting against incumbent Adrian Fenty at debates during the race. Gray and his aides have strongly denied the allegations, and so far there’s no independent corroboration of payoffs.

Monday’s hearing of the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment, chaired by council member Mary Cheh, offered both bad and good news for the mayor on the Brown situation.

First, the bad: Sworn testimony from three officials established beyond doubt that Gray’s then-chief of staff, Gerri Mason Hall, went out of her way to ensure that Brown got a job — and quickly — in the new administration. Gray fired Hall because of the controversy.

Banks said she was instructed by Hall to pay Brown $110,000 a year. That represented a $30,000 raise from his previous position, which was followed by more than two years of being unemployed.

In the single most damning bit of testimony, Banks said her office was told that Brown was “a special case.”

On the up side, if you could call it that, Hall raised no objection when she was told that Brown was going to be fired. Also, Brown’s suspect credibility dropped even further when officials testified that he was terminated for poor performance and “erratic behavior.” They said he barged in on meetings he wasn’t invited to and made unwanted romantic advances to female employees — assertions he denied.

“When this thing started off, people thought he was the equivalent of Deep Throat, but now he looks a lot more like Charlie Sheen,” said Glenn Ivey, the attorney for Howard Brooks, the Gray campaign consultant who Brown says slipped him money.

Now the city’s waiting for the next hearing, scheduled for April 7, when Cheh wants Brown and other central actors to testify. A key question will be for Hall: Why were you so eager to find a job for Brown?

If Gray is to right his administration, he’s got to put the Brown matter behind him. But he also needs to go further and ensure that other patronage scandals don’t emerge. Otherwise, he’ll have no chance of delivering on his admirable vision for helping parts of the city that have been left behind.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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