Secrets of the D.C. oversight office
By Editorial Board,
NATWAR M. GANDHI points to his decision in 2000 as the District’s newly named chief financial officer (CFO) to establish an office of integrity and oversight as evidence of his commitment to root out and correct weaknesses in the financial system. So what does it mean that the highly regarded head of that office abruptly resigned, citing concerns about the direction the agency is taking? Or that his two predecessors left office amid what sources allege were similar worries? Let’s hope that a D.C. Council committee is serious about getting the answer to these and other troubling questions that surround one of the District’s most critical offices.
William J. DiVello, who had headed the oversight and integrity office since March 2010, resigned Thursday, less than a week before the council’s finance and revenue committee is set to hold a hearing on how the agency’s tax office conducts property assessments. Mr. DiVello’s office had authored a critical audit that spotlighted shortcomings that could make the system vulnerable to mistakes or abuse. Mr. DiVello told Post reporters Nikita Stewart and Debbie Cenziper that he resigned on the spot because he objected to being told by Mr. Gandhi’s chief of staff and other officials that he couldn’t share the latest version of the audit with the council.
“I said, ‘Clear the air. There’s going to be a hearing. What are we hiding?’ ” Mr. DiVello told the reporters. And he made the stunning allegation that the office routinely keeps audits in draft form so as to exempt them from public disclosure. “My ethics don’t allow me to do that,” he said. “Put the audits out there. Let the people know . . . if there’s something wrong.”
In a phone call with us Friday, Mr. Gandhi denied that audits are kept in draft to prevent them from disclosure. He said that the report alluded to by Mr. DiVello was incomplete and that the office’s policy provides for comments from those being audited before the final report is issued and subject to release on request. He said that the objective is to get officials working together to improve systems; audit reports are not routinely made public because the information they contain could be a guide for someone with “nefarious purposes,” according to a statement by Mr. Gandhi’s spokesman.
Experts we consulted said that the healthiest audit processes involve routine, public reporting. Issues of transparency in the CFO’s office have surfaced before — Mr. Gandhi’s use of personal e-mail to conduct official business, redacting a report to seemingly hide criticism of council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and the refusal to release, until ordered, the résumé of an official whose work has come under question. Sources have told us that issues with transparency and frustration with what is seen as inertia in addressing problems were partial factors in the departures of the two previous and equally respected heads of the integrity office.
Mr. Gandhi said that we are misinformed and asked us why he would have set up the office in the first place if he weren’t interested in identifying and correcting problems. It’s a good question to which we hope that Mr. DiVello — whom council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said he’s asked to testify at Wednesday’s hearing — will be able to provide perspective.