September 5, 2012

DISTRICT RESIDENTS unfortunately have had reason to be uneasy about how the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue has conducted its business. Harriette Walters’s theft of nearly $50 million was just beginning to fade from public memory when another employee was caught stealing public money. Given these past problems, it seems only prudent that the D.C. Council would want a thorough airing of new questions that recently have been raised about the office’s operation.

The office, which has the critical task of assessing the value of properties and collecting tax revenue, has come under renewed scrutiny after Post reporters detailed how it reduced by $2.6 billion in fiscal 2012 the value of more than 500 commercial properties after settling with owners. No sooner had Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, responsible for the office’s operation, defended the settlements as necessary to avoid litigation and to correct errors by appraisers than a separate internal audit surfaced, expressing concerns about the integrity of the assessment correction process.

The audit by the CFO’s Office of Integrity and Oversight, a draft of which was delivered to Mr. Gandhi in March, found no examples of wrong­doing, but it depicted a “significantly flawed” system in which supervisors can alter property records without creating a transaction trail.

Expressing concern that such a system “creates a breeding ground for mischief and fraud,” D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) asked Mr. Gandhi for details on what internal controls are in place to assure the integrity of the system.

David Umansky, a spokesman for Mr. Gandhi, said the office was working on its response but that concerns are misplaced; he faulted The Post’s reporting and said it was unfair to ignore the safeguards that have been put in place since Ms. Walters’s arrest in 2007. He pointed out that the chief financial officer is the only District agency that has established its own internal audit team that regularly reviews agency functions and identifies issues that need correction.

In that case, there should be no reason why Mr. Gandhi wouldn’t welcome the chance to clear the air of concerns about the office’s operation. We would urge council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) to schedule a committee hearing to examine these issues.