From the early 1970s into the 1990s, Mr. Yeldell took a variety of formal titles: director of the Department of Human Resources, assistant city administrator, director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness, general assistant to the mayor, chief of the Department of Employment Services. But his influence was said to have extended well beyond the bureaucratic boundaries of any single municipal agency. He never held elected office and twice he ran unsuccessfully for D.C. delegate.
He was charismatic, politically savvy and widely known as a troubleshooter; the city’s “Mr. Fixit,” ready and able to do favors, arrange jobs or solve problems for family, friends, constituents and people of power and influence. A senator once called him in the middle of the night to complain that his illegally parked car had been towed late on a Friday and impounded in a city lot that would not open until Monday. Mr. Yeldell made a phone call, and the senator got his car back that night.
“If you wanted something done in the District, you called Joe,” William Lucy, international secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, once told The Washington Post. “There were lots of other people you could call, but if you wanted it done, you called Joe.”
In 1978, when he was director of the city’s Department of Human Resources, Mr. Yeldell was indicted along with multimillionaire developer and parking lot magnate Dominic F. Antonelli Jr. on charges of bribery and conspiracy in the awarding of a $5.6 million lease by the city of an Antonelli-owned building.
Prosecutors had argued that in return for the lease of the Antonelli property, Mr. Yeldell, who owned a struggling travel agency and was unable to repay bank loans, had received financial assistance from Antonelli.
An original guilty verdict was overturned on appeal after it was revealed that one of the jurors had failed to disclose that her father had once worked for and been fired by Antonelli. Both men were acquitted in a second trial, which had been moved to Philadelphia after the widely publicized first trial in Washington.
Mr. Yeldell was a mathematics teacher at Coolidge High School in Washington and an IBM salesman before President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the non-elected city council in 1967. Mr. Yeldell had announced his candidacy for the post in a telephone call to the Washington Daily News, and he asked readers to write letters of support and send them to the White House.
Joseph A. Califano Jr., then counsel to the president, once told The Post that Johnson “saw the piece in the paper and told me this sounded like the kind of guy that should be on a city council. He asked me to talk to him. I found him bright, articulate and interested.”