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D.C.’s drip, drip, drip in the finance office

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JACK EVANS, Ward 2’s representative on the D.C. Council, is one of Natwar M. Gandhi’s most unabashed fans, so when he complains about the “drip, drip, drip” of management problems under the city’s chief financial officer (CFO), there is reason to worry.

Mr. Gandhi testified for several hours Wednesday at a council oversight hearing into alleged problems in the city’s tax office. A series of articles by The Post’s Debbie Cenziper and Nikita Stewart — with which Mr. Gandhi has taken issue — raised questions about settlements that lowered the tax bills on hundreds of commercial properties; the background of the appraiser in charge; and whether proper controls are in place. Also testifying was William DiVello, the agency’s former head of internal affairs, who produced an audit critical of assessment practices and who quit in dramatic protest over what he has characterized as pressure to hide problems from public view.

Mr. DiVello provided earnest testimony about frustrations over audits delayed or, in one case, gutted, by senior CFO managers. He said that his efforts to talk one on one with Mr. Gandhi were rebuffed. So it was jarring to see Mr. Gandhi try to shift the blame to Mr. DiVello for not following up on identified problems. The auditor’s function is distinct from a manager’s; as council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) pointed out, responsibilities outside his expertise were being ascribed to Mr. DiVello. To criticism about the lack of training for the office, Mr. Gandhi offered the lame excuse that the mayor had banned travel by city employees. His assurance about weekly meetings with his management team in which he goes around the table and asks about problems did not answer the question of why the person he put in charge of integrity and oversight couldn’t get a private meeting with him.

It is clear that Mr. Gandhi values cooperation and collaboration in his agency, but one has to wonder if it comes at the expense of compliance. He said that auditors need to sit down with those being audited to fix problems; one wonders what would have happened if an auditor had looked to Harriette Walters for ideas on how to tighten the system.

Practices in the tax office, thanks in part to Mr. Gandhi, have been strengthened since the 2007 discovery of Ms. Walters’s record embezzlement of $48 million. But more must be done. Mr. Gandhi’s promise to post summaries of internal audits on the agency’s Web site, while welcome, doesn’t go far enough. There is no reason audits shouldn’t routinely be provided to the council and a way found to make them public without revealing sensitive security issues. Mr. Catania’s suggestion of a more independent internal affairs office, modeled after the federal system of inspectors general, also has merit.

More on this topic: The Post’s View: Secrets of the D.C. oversight office The Post’s View: D.C. chief financial officer should release details about top tax appraiser The Post’s View: New questions about the District’s tax office The Post’s View: Yielding on tax appeals is hitting D.C.’s bottom line

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