December 7, 2012

Are The Post’s newsroom and editorial board being unfair to D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray?

I get comments from readers saying that they are, and recently the mayor’s staff complained as well. Gray’s aides believe that The Post hasn’t got over its love affair with former mayor Adrian M. Fenty and is punishing Gray as a result.

It can seem that, since he was elected mayor in 2010, Gray has hardly gotten a break. First, he got in trouble because members of his staff were hiring their sons and daughters for city jobs. Then there was the scandal over Sulaimon Brown, a mayoral candidate who said he was paid by Gray campaign officials to disparage Fenty during the 2010 Democratic primary.

Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. has been investigating since the spring of 2011 a $650,000 off-the-books “shadow campaign” that aides to Gray carried out on his behalf in 2010. Gray has denied any wrongdoing. An investigation like that — especially on the heels of two D.C. Council members being convicted of felonies — casts a pall over city government.

I’ll give Gray credit for continuing to work hard as mayor while facing a federal investigation. He’s not hunkered down in the Wilson Building. And if you look around the city, there is progress.

D.C. unemployment is down; dozens of construction cranes dot the city; District finances are sound, and the rainy-day fund has been replenished; school reforms are still proceeding, without Michelle Rhee as chancellor; bike lanes are continuing to be built; the mayor’s initiative to attract more high-tech employment was enacted; and the mayor is getting along well with Republicans in Congress, no small feat.

I learned most of that by reading The Post. Okay, some of the good-news stories appear only online, in blogs that not everyone reads. And yes, some of those stories are couched in language such as, “Despite the scandal, the embattled D.C. mayor actually got something done today.”

But The Post’s newsroom and editorial board push back hard against suggestions of bias against Gray, and they make the stronger case.

Mike Semel, deputy local editor for news and investigations, put it this way: “Mr. Gray is the mayor of the nation’s capital, and The Post’s reporting has raised some very serious and very real questions about how he got into that office. It is our job, our purpose and our mission to illuminate these issues. Moreover, everything we have written has been proven correct in the courts. Not once has our accuracy been called into question.

“We repeatedly have urged Mayor Gray to respond and tell his side of the story, and he has declined. If we have any bias, it is for the truth.”

The mayor’s staff is even more exercised over The Post’s editorials. Jo-Ann Armao, a member of the editorial board who was a tough, indefatigable Metro reporter and editor before she joined the opinion staff, writes most of these. Her editorials are hard-hitting, yes, but backed up by solid reporting that has yet to be proved false.

Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor, responded to the criticism this way: “Everything we do is heavily reported. Jo-Ann never writes a critical piece without getting all the facts and trying to get all sides to explain their positions. It is thanks to her editorials that [D.C. Council member] Harry Thomas Jr.’s misdeeds were exposed, eventually leading to his resignation and conviction. I would say that is an editorial page at its best.

“Very credible allegations have been raised about misbehavior in Gray’s campaign, and officials close to him have pleaded guilty to serious offenses. As we reported recently, he has declined to speak with prosecutors or speak publicly about these. Until he does, I believe he is going to be handicapped as mayor, and that’s not because of critical editorials.”

On the advice of his lawyer, Gray has said he will not talk publicly about the shadow campaign while it is under investigation. That is his right.

It is possible that Gray was ignorant of it. The council investigation of the nepotism problems early in his term called Gray “disconnected” from hiring decisions.

But not talking to prosecutors or to the public ensures that the investigation will continue, and so too the pall over city government.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.