D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown’s team requested a Lincoln Navigator from city officials within hours of winning the November election, a demand that could end up costing taxpayers more than $30,000 even though Brown drove the sport-utility vehicle for only a few weeks, top city leaders testified Thursday.
Testifying under oath before a council committee, City Administrator Allen Y. Lew and Public Works Director William O. Howland Jr. recalled being told by Brown or one of his staffers that Brown wanted the city to lease for him a Lincoln Navigator with black interior and such amenities as a moon roof and entertainment system.
The first request came the day after the Nov. 2 election, when a member of Brown’s transition team contacted Howland’s staff. In mid-December, the agency received a leased SUV with a gray interior, and Brown ordered that it be sent back, Howland said.
Around the same time, Brown asked that Lew check on the status of his request for an SUV, Lew told the Committee on Public Works.
“The chairman-elect, in mid-December, approached me and asked me about the procuring of his vehicle,” Lew said. “I put a call into Bill Howland, and Mr. Howland told me it was just a question of whether it was going to arrive in one week or two weeks.”
Brown received the second vehicle in mid-January, but he returned it a month later after The Washington Post reported that the SUV would cost taxpayers about $2,000 a month.
Brown has promised to repay the city for the month that he used the car. Under questioning by council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Howland spelled out how much the city had paid.
Under city procurement rules, District agencies are supposed to make lease payments on a month-to-month basis. But because of what Howland described as a mistake, the Department of Public Works paid $17,669 up front when it entered the lease for the vehicle that Brown rejected.
The city sent the vehicle back to the leasing company, but Lew said the city might not recover any part of the payment because the company is claiming a breach of contract.
For the second SUV, which Brown ultimately accepted, the city paid $1,963 to lease the vehicle, a month’s payment. Howland said the city also paid $1,600 in “expedited” shipping costs.
After Brown gave up the second SUV, Public Works returned it to the leasing company. But Howland said the leasing company has filed a $12,400 breach-of-contract claim against the city.
In a brief interview Thursday, Brown said it is not his fault that Public Works violated city rules by paying a big part of the initial lease upfront. “I’m still committed to make my payments for the uses and time I used the vehicle,” Brown said.
With Wells and Evans pushing for answers about Brown’s request, the hearing appeared to expose growing fractures among council members over the chairman’s leadership. In his opening statement, Evans said taxpayers “are offended” when they see elected officials driving around in new cars.
“It is my firm belief that, with the exception of the mayor, no one [in city government] needs a car,” Evans said.
Wells repeatedly challenged Howland, asking why he had authorized Brown’s lease. Under District law, city officials are prohibited from leasing or buying SUVs except for ”security, emergency, rescue” or snow removal.
Howland said he classified Brown’s vehicle as for emergency use because the chairman might have to get around the city after a major snowfall or a natural or man-made disaster.
Wells derided Howland’s reasoning, remarking at one point that most city streets “are paved.”
Brown isn’t the first council chairman to be given an SUV. When Vincent C. Gray (D), now the city’s mayor, was elected council chairman in 2006, he requested a Chevy Tahoe, Howland said.
The lease on Gray’s Tahoe was about to expire when Brown was elected chairman last year. The lease could have been renewed at a rate of $600 a month, Howland testified.