November 16, 2012

THE IDEA BEHIND a D.C. law strengthening free-speech protections was to prevent powerful interests from filing nuisance lawsuits to deter citizens from debating public issues. It’s startling that D.C. government lawyers are trying to use this law against a former city employee who claims to be a whistleblower wronged by a top city official. The action fits a pattern of questionable efforts to squelch allegations that deserve a full airing.

Lawyers for the D.C. attorney general filed an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) motion to dismiss a defamation suit filed against D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi by former contracting officer Eric W. Payne. Mr. Payne has brought a separate suit against the District and Mr. Gandhi for what he claims was wrongful termination after resisting political pressure concerning the D.C. Lottery contract and filing complaints about alleged improprieties in the office of the chief financial officer (CFO). The alleged defamation concerns Mr. Gandhi’s statements that he fired Mr. Payne because he was a “very poor manager” who was “rude” and “nasty.”

The comments, made to The Post’s Mike DeBonis and mirroring sentiments circulated by Mr. Gandhi in a private e-mail, are at odds with Mr. Gandhi’s sworn testimony that he had nothing to do with the decision to terminate Mr. Payne in 2009. “Either Dr. Gandhi’s prior statement that he did not personally terminate Mr. Payne is false, or his recent public statement that he did personally terminate Mr. Payne is false and malicious. Both cannot be true,” argued Mr. Payne’s attorney.

The reasons for Mr. Payne’s termination have yet to be established, but his allegations about suspect behavior — denied by city officials — cannot be easily dismissed. It was through Mr. Payne’s 2010 suit that city officials’ use of personal e-mails for government business was brought to light. The lottery contract he alleges he was told (but refused) to manipulate is now apparently under investigation by federal prosecutors. His complaints about opaque CFO operations have been given some credence by recent revelations that have attracted the interest of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The investigation by the Metro board into D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) affirmed there were unseemly goings-on behind closed doors while the lottery contract was under review.

Which brings us to the continuing secrecy surrounding the investigation by former CFO integrity officer Robert G. Andary that raised questions about Mr. Graham’s conduct. Mr. Andary’s complete report and his deposition in Mr. Payne’s case remain under court seal — at the city’s insistence — because of a ludicrous argument that essentially affords confidential whistle-blower protection to Mr. Graham, who brought what turned out to be baseless complaints of wrongdoing against Mr. Payne. Mr. Andary won’t comment, citing a confidentiality agreement he signed when he left Mr. Gandhi’s employ. This information should be released and the issues aired at public trial.

Mr. Payne remains without a job, his bank account has been garnished and his family recently lost its home. Not exactly the kind of powerful interests that require extra protections.