Sulaimon Brown refuses to testify before D.C. Council over hiring controversy

April 7, 2011

Sulaimon Brown, the former mayoral candidate who says he was promised a city job to attack then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in last year’s campaign, stormed out of the John A. Wilson Building on Thursday after he refused to testify at a D.C. Council hearing on the hiring practices of Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration.

Brown, a 40-year-old unemployed auditor, called the hearing a “witch hunt” and said he would instead cooperate with the U.S. attorney’s office and a congressional committee investigating his allegations.

Brown’s brief appearance and public departure with a throng of reporters trailing him came after council members heard from several witnesses about how political hires, known as “excepted service” workers, landed their jobs and salaries. Several inconsistencies became apparent among the witnesses Thursday, as well as with the previous testimony of Judy Banks, former interim director of the Department of Human Resources.

“It’s a whole day of ‘the dog ate my homework,’ ” council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said during the testimony of Gerri Mason Hall, who was fired last month from her $200,000-a-year job as the Democratic mayor’s chief of staff.

Hall said her notes show that Lorraine Green, chairwoman of Gray’s campaign and transition, told her to talk to the mayor about Brown and that that was a factor in meeting with him about a job. But she said she did not speak with the mayor about Brown and that no one directed her to hire him. She also testified that she was not aware of any deal Brown alleged he had with the campaign.

However, Hall acknowledged that she made mistakes, such as failing to look more closely at the past legal troubles of some job candidates and helping her son get a city job. “I regret those errors,” she said.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chairwoman of the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment, said Banks “seems to be playing a more pivotal role” in the administration’s hiring than previously thought. She said she wanted to hear from Banks, Brown, Green and Gray campaign consultant Howard Brooks and would issue subpoenas.

Brown has alleged that the Gray campaign promised him a job in exchange for continuing his campaign shots at Fenty (D) and that Brooks and Green paid him to disparage the former mayor. Gray, Brooks and Green have denied the allegations, and The Washington Post has not been able to verify any of the alleged payments.

In his first months in office, Gray has come under fire for the handling of excepted service hires. Several people’s salaries exceeded those earned by predecessors in the Fenty administration and in some cases exceeded city caps. Five children of aides in Gray’s campaign and administration were hired as excepted service employees. A few excepted service workers, including Brown, were found to have had law enforcement run-ins that were not discovered or were overlooked by the Gray transition and administration. Brown landed a job as a special assistant in the Department of Health Care Finance at an annual salary of $110,000; he was dismissed in late February.

But in recent weeks, Gray appears to have tried to reverse his tumultuous course, which critics say is a reminder of past administrations bogged down by investigations, cronyism and nepotism. Four of the five children of aides, including sons of Hall and Brooks, have resigned. Gray fired Hall and rolled back salaries that exceeded legal caps.

At the hearing Thursday, Leslie Green, Green’s daughter, and Brandon Webb, son of Rochelle Webb, who until her dismissal last Friday was the interim director of the Department of Employment Services, testified.

Leslie Green, who holds a master’s degree from Howard University and is now senior communications director in the Office of Motion Picture and Television Development and has an annual salary of $85,000, said the office’s director, Crystal Palmer, told her that she wanted to hire her. Green testified that she began working Jan. 3 even though she filled out an application Jan. 12. Green said she met Palmer when they were volunteering on Gray’s campaign last summer.

Palmer, who said she has known Lorraine Green for 15 years, said the younger Green might have forgotten that they had met earlier socially.

Brandon Webb, who resigned last month, said he wanted to move to the District from Arizona, where his mother also lived, to raise his children in a more “cultured” community.

He said he had previously applied for jobs with the city but had not heard back. After his mother was hired, he gave her his resume and got a job as a special assistant in Fire and Emergency Medical Services the next day.

“Your mother becomes a cabinet member and you’re hired the next day. You don’t find that odd?” Catania asked. The council member also asked whether such a hiring was moral.

“The morality of it, sir, is not in question because it was an excepted service hire,” Webb said.

Webb, who was not interviewed for the job, also said he told his mother that he needed to make $65,000, based on cost-of-living comparisons between the District and Arizona. He was being paid $43,000 in his previous job.

E-mails read aloud by Catania show that Rochelle Webb communicated directly with Banks to help her son get the job.

Banks testified at an earlier hearing that she did not talk to Webb about her son and was contacted by Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe, who told her that he wanted to hire Brandon Webb.

Ellerbe, who also testified Thursday, disputed Banks’s account. He said Banks called him, asked whether there was a position with a $65,000 salary and asked whether he could hire Brandon Webb. “I believe I asked, ‘What can he do?’ ” Ellerbe testified.

Ellerbe and Webb had conflicting accounts about Webb’s resignation. Webb said he was urged to step down and was promised a job in the private sector. “They did not want my name drug through the mud, and the mayor could not take another political hit,” Webb said.

During her testimony, Rochelle Webb said she was hired after answering a national job advertisement.

She previously made $90,000 annually, requested $150,000 and received $165,000 in her city job. Webb was fired after she declined to resign in the wake of media reports about her son; her $5,000 temporary stay at the W Hotel; chauffeured rides to work; and expenses of staff members she had hired from Arizona.

Webb said she asked for deleted e-mails to tell her side of the story and believed she was fired when she said she was going to testify.

Webb’s testimony contradicted that of Leroy Ellis, a $125,000-a-year special assistant in the employment services department. Ellis, who has had a long career in employment services, said he approached Webb after Gray announced her nomination.

Ellis, also a consultant on Gray’s campaign, said that he has known his next-door neighbor Brooks for eight or nine years and that he had done consulting work for one of Brooks’s companies. Ellis, of Silver Spring, said he asked Brooks how he could get involved in Gray’s campaign and was told he could help with a golf fundraiser.

He said that he asked Brooks about a job but that their relationship did not lead to the position. He said he does not have a relationship with Lorraine Green or Hall.

Brown told The Post that Gray and Green promised him a job. But Hall said she hired Brown because of his “continued persistence” and with the hope that it would stop his lingering around the mayor.

“To alleviate that, I had him come and meet with me.”

Staff writer Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

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