A federal judge has ordered the District to reinstate disability benefits to about 2,000 city government employees, a decision that will cost millions of dollars and prompted the D.C. Council yesterday to oust the city's chief risk officer from his job.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly will cost an estimated $18.9 million this fiscal year, city officials said. In a ruling Sept. 24, the judge said the city had not published rules that stated why claimants' benefits dating back to 1998 were terminated, suspended or reduced.
During yesterday's council hearing, Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) said Kollar-Kotelly's decision showed that James J. Jacobs should not be confirmed. He has served as the city's chief risk officer since 2000, responsible for analyzing and controlling the government's exposure to financial risks. Under a recent reorganization in Mayor Anthony A. Williams's office, Jacobs became an agency head, requiring confirmation.
Orange, chairman of the council's Committee on Government Operations, which oversees the disability program, said Jacobs had violated city and federal laws by not providing the proper cash or medical benefits for many of the city's injured workers and by denying them due process.
"The evidence was overwhelming against Jacobs," Orange said. "He's been here four years, and unlike other nominees, there was a track record. Jacobs was brought here to start the Office of Risk Management and reduce the cost of government. Now we have this $18.9 million unbudgeted cost. This is not a good way to start a new fiscal year."
City Administrator Robert C. Bobb, who was angered by the council's 12 to 1 vote not to confirm Jacobs, said the problem began before Jacobs came to the job. He said the city's attorney general plans to appeal the court decision.
"I think it's a tragedy," Bobb said of the vote. "It's a hollow victory. . . . I don't believe it's the role of the council to fire a director of any agency. It's the role of the mayor and the city administrator."
Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who voted to protect Jacobs's job, also said the program was troubled before Jacobs started the risk office.
Three years ago, a group of former city government workers whose disability payments had been cut off or reduced sued the city in U.S. District Court, contending that the changes to their benefits were unfair.
Jamal Rashad, one of the plaintiffs, said the council's decision not to confirm Jacobs made his day. Rashad, a former lawyer in the Office of the Corporation Counsel who started receiving disability benefits in the late 1990s, said the city terminated his benefits in January.
"They gave me a reason, but it was legally deficient," said Rashad, who expects his benefits to resume within a month.
Several injured workers sat through a lengthy council hearing yesterday to express their displeasure with Jacobs.
"It's a victory today," said Geraldine Adams, who said she was injured when she tried to stop a fight at a D.C. public school. "I've had six back operations and two hip replacements. They stopped my check two years ago."
The claimants include a D.C. Housing Authority employee, William Workcuff, who was hurt in February 2002 and did not receive benefits for more than two years. Workcuff has said he lost his home and was forced to sleep on his mother's couch while other family members provided for him and his children.