Gray’s former top aide takes the fall, but stench will linger from D.C. hiring scandals

Robert McCartney
Columnist April 9, 2011

“You’re taking the fall. One of us has got to take it, after the talking those birds will do.”

Detective Sam Spade,

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

The Maltese Falcon

Gerri Mason Hall’s taking the fall. Or at least she’s trying to.

Although several current and former District officials have admitted mistakes in the hiring scandals that have dogged the opening months of Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration, former chief of staff Hall has gone the furthest and conceded the most.

Nepotism. Inadequate vetting of candidates. Excessive pay. Hiring Sulaimon Brown. She had a hand in it all.

“With the clarity of hindsight, I realize I made mistakes and exercised poor judgment,” Hall testified Thursday during the second round of D.C. Council hearings on the scandals. She sat straight and spoke clearly while answering questions posed by skeptical council members.

Of all those who’ve lost their jobs in the debacle, Hall has tumbled the furthest. She gave up a successful career as a personnel executive in the private sector to become Gray’s chief of staff, accepting a salary cut from $270,000 (plus stock options) to $200,000. Gray fired her after just a few weeks, and now she’s unemployed.

Having suffered damage to a professional reputation that took a lifetime to build, Hall now concedes, quite rightly, that she wasn’t cut out for the job. I and others had urged Gray to replace her, saying she lacked political instincts.

“This is not the place for me,” Hall said simply. “It was not a good fit.”

It remains to be seen whether Hall taking the blame will be enough to save the mayor and his campaign team from serious legal trouble. But regardless of whether the U.S. attorney brings a case, it’s not too soon to say that the stench from this scandal will linger indefinitely.

After Hall’s painfully cautious account – riddled with “I don’t recall” moments in key places – I don’t see how Gray can ever fully dispel the suspicion that his campaign had some kind of private, untoward understanding with minor mayoral candidate Brown in last year’s race.

Brown has said the campaign promised him a job and slipped him cash in envelopes in return for his keeping up harsh attacks in debates against incumbent Adrian Fenty. The Post has not independently corroborated that any payments were made.

Gray and his campaign chair, Lorraine Green – who also happens to be a longtime friend and patron of Hall’s – have said they promised Brown a job interview but nothing else. Their assertion that there was no quid pro quo for a job is critical. If one existed, it could have violated the District’s corrupt-influence law.

In the part of her testimony most critical to protecting Gray, Hall said she acted almost entirely on her own in making the ultimately disastrous decision to hire Brown. She said she never talked to the mayor about it and knew nothing of a deal between Brown and the Gray campaign.

But there are reasons to be skeptical of Hall’s testimony that she was not feeling any special pressure to hire Brown.

To hear Hall tell it, she hired Brown largely to stop him from pestering Gray at public events. If that’s true, it suggests that an experienced, top-level human-resources professional was motivated to give somebody a $110,000 job because he was a nuisance.

Hall also said that Brown interviewed well and that she neglected to do a sufficient background check. It turned out that he had a criminal record, and his personal behavior was so bad at the Health Care Finance Office that he was fired within weeks for poor performance.

In her most telling revelation, Hall acknowledged that she wrote a note to herself in December saying Green had told her in a phone conversation to “check with Vince [Gray] regarding reaching out for a position” for Brown.

Council member David Catania called that “a bit of a smoking gun.” But Green has yet to testify. Based on her past statements, it’s reasonable to expect that she’ll say Gray just wanted to make sure Brown got the interview he was promised.

It would be hard to poke holes in such an account unless there are documents, text messages or some other kind of physical or electronic evidence to back up Brown’s claims. His credibility has fallen again, too, as he refused to testify publicly under oath at the hearing as planned.

Meanwhile, Gerri Hall ponders the costs to herself, the mayor and the city. When council member Marion Barry asked if she regretted her errors, she paused, appeared to gather herself and said softly, “You can’t imagine how much I regret it.”

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