D.C. Probes Employee's Use of His Web Site
Man May Have Profited From City Purchases
By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2004; Page B01
A D.C. government employee responsible for purchasing supplies for a division of the Department of Health is under investigation for allegedly channeling city orders through a private Internet business for which he received commissions, according to city officials.
Winston G. Nicholas, who created and ran a Web site business called Nich Online Information Brokers (NOLIB), and other Health Department employees allegedly used a city government-issued credit card to purchase department supplies from vendors linked from his Web site. The purchases in question were made in 2002 and totaled at least $33,600, according to Herbert R. Tillery, interim director of the Department of Health.
The D.C. Office of the Inspector General is investigating the allegations to determine whether Nicholas violated city law by using or encouraging others to use his Web site. Government employees are prohibited from using their public office for private financial gain. If found in violation of the law, Nicholas could be moved to another position or fired, said city officials, who also are investigating whether all the purchases were for the D.C. government.
Nicholas, 47, has worked for the city for 22 years and is in charge of ordering supplies for the Office of Primary Care, Prevention and Planning. He said he has operated his Web site for eight years but denied using it in connection with his city job.
At times, he said, the Web site has had as many as 300 links to vendors that offer computer equipment and software, office supplies, toys and clothing. Nicholas said he is paid referral fees from vendors when shoppers order merchandise through links from his Web site.
"I've never used it to order government materials," Nicholas said. "Why would I do something that stupid? . . . It would be a conflict for me to be using my personal stuff to gain from the government. I use [the Web site] for my own personal purposes."
Nicholas said it is not a lucrative business. In 2002, he said, he made $2,000, all of which was used to maintain the site. He said his commission checks do not identify the vendor or the customer who made the purchase.
"I personally don't know of any $33,000 being spent on my Web site," Nicholas said in an interview at his attorney's office. "I have no way of telling the source of where the orders came from."
He said he still operates the Web site, www.nolib.com, but plans to take it down.
Tillery said that city employees no longer have the same access to city-issued credit cards to order supplies. He also said that his staff has interviewed Health Department employees to determine whether they once used Nicholas's Web site to order government supplies and confirmed that two employees had done so.
One of those employees and a third employee said in interviews with a reporter that they used the site to order government supplies after Nicholas encouraged them to do so.
Over the past year, the inspector general has collected credit card receipts and interviewed current and former Health Department employees about the Web site, according to city employees assisting with the investigation.
"There's a problem," Tillery said. "I want to make sure we do a thorough inquiry."
Tillery also said he wants the inspector general to subpoena vendors to determine how much commission Nicholas may have earned. "It's the principle," he said. "Even if it wasn't but $50, you cannot use your government position for personal gain."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company