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The curious case of Eric Payne

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“NOBODY HAS ever asked me, fire that guy — nobody, no mayor, no council member. It was my decision.” That comment by D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi about the firing of former lottery contract officer Eric W. Payne caught our eye because Mr. Gandhi, as part of the wrongful-termination case brought by Mr. Payne, had testified under oath that he had nothing to do with the decision.

So we contacted Mr. Gandhi’s spokesman and got this clarification of Mr. Gandhi’s comments to The Post’s Mike DeBonis: Mr. Gandhi had made an earlier decision to demote Mr. Payne, but his actual termination was the decision of his direct supervisor. The only problem with that explanation is that Mr. Gandhi, in his Nov. 30 deposition, had also denied being consulted about Mr. Payne’s demotion. “Then I am mistaken,” the spokesman said when advised of the sworn testimony.

The dismissal of a city employee is not normally on our radar screen, but Mr. Payne is central to the questions that have been raised about the city’s handling of its lottery contract. Was he, as he alleges in his federal lawsuit, wrongfully terminated in 2009 because he resisted political pressure to take improper action on the lottery contract and raised questions about contracting practices in the chief financial office? Or was he let go, as Mr. Gandhi claims, because he was a “poor manager” who was “rude” and “nasty?”

If the latter is the case, surely there should be convincing documentation. Why was Mr. Payne judged to have exceeded expectations on evaluations that resulted in monetary awards? Why was the negative review supporting his termination not signed and, according to Mr. Payne, never discussed with him? How to explain a finding by Mr. Payne’s supervisor that “specific evidence of ‘abuse’ and ‘mistreatment’ has been lacking” while Mr. Payne had “worked tirelessly to bring needed change to that office”? Mr. Payne has produced evidence sufficient for a federal judge to require unusual depositions from Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), both of whom Mr. Payne accuses of exerting inappropriate pressure on him during the 2008 contract deliberations. They deny any wrongdoing.

City officials clearly view Mr. Payne’s lawsuit as a nuisance, but it has raised important issues. Included here is the use of personal e-mail by city officials to conduct public business. A deputy to Mr. Gandhi testified that if an issue needed to be discussed without becoming subject to Freedom of Information requirements, “we would have perhaps had a conversation on personal e-mail.” Some documents sought by Mr. Payne from Mr. Graham are said to be unavailable because there is no backup system for e-mails deleted from the personal account he uses as his primary address. Why even bother with retention standards for e-mail if officials are allowed to use systems that circumvent them?

We had hoped that when this odious practice was revealed in December, the mayor and the council chairman would issue a clear policy requiring that official business stay in public view. We are still waiting.

More on this debate: Patrick B. Pexton: Is The Post going after Jim Graham? Colbert I. King: We’re to blame for the D.C. Council mess Colbert I. King: Did D.C. officials play fast and loose with the lottery contract? The Post’s View: More questions for Mr. Graham

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