A finish, not necessarily a close, to D.C. hiring hearings

Mike DeBonis
District of DeBonis May 12, 2011

If it’s closure you’re looking for Friday, when Lorraine A. Green testifies before the D.C. Council on her role in Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s controversial hiring practices, don’t hold your breath.

The series of hearings on hiring by the Gray administration has generated lots of conflicting testimony, blame deflection and “I don’t recall” moments. After Green, Hizzoner’s closest political adviser, says her piece, the committee will most likely wind down its probe without concluding anything more satisfying than that personnel rules were broken.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays. View Archive

For a legislative body hammering out a $10.8 billion budget, the process has used valuable member and staff time. It has gone on longer than members anticipated — much like the probe of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s parks contracting, which took more than a year.

“What’s the point?”

That’s what attorney A. Scott Bolden wants to know. He has represented targets of both probes, and he’s critical of the legislators’ recent investigative jones. “I think the council should take a break in investigating until they learn to investigate,” Bolden told my colleague Nikita Stewart this week.

Bolden, a former Manhattan criminal prosecutor, knows a little bit about investigations. And at first blush, there’s plenty of probing going on; federal prosecutors and the House Oversight and Government Reform committee also are investigating the allegations that Green gave cash payments to minor mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown. And council members “investigate issues of their political interests, not substantive issues of the government,” Bolden added.

Maybe so. But as I’ve mentioned in this space before, the District is hobbled by its lack of a sheriff — an investigator with the sufficient prerogative to deliver the swift answers necessary to prop up public confidence in the government. Alacrity has never been a priority of the city’s inspector general and the D.C. auditor; federal prosecutors often poke around an issue for months without anything to show for it; and congressional probes are taken as insult.

In this town, for better or worse, the D.C. Council is as good as we get right now.

The hearings got off to a messy start, with David A. Catania (I-At Large) assailing Mary M. Cheh’s initial report on the hirings as a “whitewash” in a hearing room full of reporters. Catania said Cheh (D-Ward 3) has done a fine job leading the inquiry since, which he admits might not end with clear-cut answers about Brown’s hiring and other matters.

But that’s not the point, he said: “It’s meritorious to have this investigation if for no other reason than to have the public see other public officials condemn what happened. Had we done nothing, it would appear as if the council condoned what are clear violations of the law with respect to personnel. We do not.”

For sure, the hearings have revealed that not all of the members of the D. C. Council are equally concerned about these matters. Committee members Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) have often sought to play down the various allegations.

Bolden and Catania agree on one thing: The council isn’t really equipped to conduct real quasi-judicial investigations. “There are good-government types who will say this is good oversight,” Bolden said. “It’s not good oversight; it’s bad investigative work.”

There have been puzzling moves. Serving subpoenas on Brown and former parks department employee Cherita Whiting, who is Bolden’s client, was troublesome. Cheh, told that alleged bagman Howard Brooks would plead the Fifth Amendment, excused him entirely. Brooks has denied wrongdoing, and Cheh said calling him in spite of his Fifth-pleading intentions would violate legal professional standards. It was the professional thing to do, perhaps, but it avoids the “klieg lights and drama that . . . the public frankly deserves,” said Catania, who would have preferred to bring Brooks, a Gray campaign consultant, before cameras before dismissing him.

That’s the sort of public spectacle that might strike Bolden and others as grandstanding, but the council probe, for all its faults, has painted a picture of the early Gray administration that is far from flattering: Testimony and e-mails show that a coterie of advisers, led by Green, chief of staff Gerri Mason Hall and personnel director Judy Banks ran a process to place Gray’s political allies in city jobs, with an uneven regard for their qualifications and personnel laws. They have all denied wrongdoing.

There have already been consequences to all the sunshine. Hall stepped down. Most of the relatives of top Gray aides have resigned from their city jobs. Banks left her city post, though she remains as the human resources director at the Washington Convention and Sports Authority.

But the benefits may transcend a few personnel changes, Catania said. “This may well be a blessing for the Gray administration,” he said in his city hall office. “Entitlement permeates this particular crowd of people around the mayor. And there would have been perp walks out of this building.”

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