Mayor Gray’s hiring practices under microscope

Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s former chief of staff made several attempts to find a city job for Sulaimon Brown, eventually placing him in an agency with oversight over how the District spends funds on local and federal health-care programs, according to testimony from a D.C. Council hearing Monday probing the administration’s hiring practices.

The hearing, the first of two scheduled to try to unravel how several controversial hires were made, offered the most detailed picture to date of how Brown was hired as a $110,000-a-year special assistant despite six run-ins with law enforcement, including three charges in the District and one in Chicago.

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Gerri Mason Hall, who was Gray’s chief of staff until her dismissal two weeks ago, instructed the Department of Health Care Finance on Jan. 31 to find a position to match Brown’s qualifications, the agency’s former chief of staff, Talib Karim, told the council.

“There was an auditor who she had identified for our agency,” Karim said, referring to Brown, who was later dismissed. “I was instructed to find a position for him.”

In his testimony before the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment, Karim said Brown was hired to work on a “special project” with the agency’s associate director for planning and policy. But after three weeks on the job, Karim said, agency leaders became concerned with Brown’s “poor performance and erratic behavior,” including “invading meetings he did not belong in.”

About the same time, Karim said, leaders started “receiving reports” that Brown was harassing female employees, including offering “a romantic gift to an intern with the agency.”

In an interview after his testimony, Karim alleged that Brown gave the intern a “love CD” on Valentine’s Day. Wayne Turnage, director of the health-care finance agency, told Brown on Feb. 24 that he was being fired.

Brown, who sat in the hearing room for part of the proceedings, declined to comment on Karim’s explanation of his termination.

“I won’t even dignify his comment with a response because it is off-base,” Brown said.

After Brown was fired, he alleged that Gray campaign officials last year had promised him a job if he stayed in the mayor’s race and continued his attacks former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). Brown said Lorraine Green, Gray’s campaign chairwoman, and campaign consultant Howard Brooks had given him cash payments during the campaign to continue his attacks on Fenty.

Gray (D), Green and Brooks have denied the allegations, and The Washington Post has not independently verified any payments.

The allegations came on the heels of reports that some top Gray administration officials had been awarded salaries that exceed limits set in the D.C. Code. The children of several top staffers and campaign officials — including Brooks, Green and Hall — were also were hired by the administration.

“This hearing is an attempt to get to the facts and lay them before the public and determine if laws were broken,” said D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3).

Cheh, who chairs the committee, was joined at the hearing by council members David A. Catania (I-At Large), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). Barry emerged as the sole defender of the administration, stating repeatedly that it is being held to an unfair standard.

“These are only allegations, and those of us on the council have a responsibility to not spread allegations as truth,” Barry said.

None of the witnesses said they had evidence that Gray had promised Brown a job.

All of the witnesses — including Reuben O. Charles, who headed Gray’s transition — also testified that they had no knowledge of Brown’s allegations that he had been paid by the Gray campaign last year.

But Judy Banks, head of the Department of Human Resources, testified that Hall set her son’s salary before she hired him, without an interview, as a special assistant for the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Cheh and other council members are hoping to gather more insight at the second hearing, tentatively scheduled for April 7.

Cheh said Green, Brooks and Hall have agreed to testify at that hearing. Brown has also been invited to testify, but he said he is uncertain whether to appear because he is already cooperating with a separate investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office.

“She needs to invite the mayor down here to testify, because he’s a key player in the whole thing,” Brown said, referring to Cheh. “For her to sit there and try to circumvent this, to put the mayor out of it, it’s ridiculous.”

During the hearing, Charles testified that he first met Brown the day after the Sept. 14 Democratic primary. Charles described Brown as “incredibly persistent” in his efforts to obtain a job.

“In many ways, he thought he was the most influential [person] to Vince Gray winning,” Charles said.

During the transition, Charles said, Brown became a nuisance and Green asked him to speak to Brown because he was “disrupting the flow” of the office.

Charles J. Willoughby, the city’s inspector general, testified that Hall contacted him Jan. 14 and asked him about a potential job opening in his office for Brown. When Willoughby told Hall that there were no openings, Hall asked him to “meet with him” as a “matter of courtesy.” The meeting was held the next week, but Willoughby said he reiterated to Brown that there were no openings.

When Brown received his job at the Department of Health Care Finance a week later, Banks said, Hall instructed her to process Brown with a salary of $110,000.

“We were told this was a special case,” Banks said.

Staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.

 
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