Gandhi Works on Image Control

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 4, 2008

Natwar M. Gandhi calls himself an apolitical bean counter, but the D.C. government's chief financial officer begins his daily routine with a long-standing Washington rite: the power breakfast.

On a recent morning, Gandhi was at a fancy downtown hotel wooing Alice Rivlin, who 10 years ago chaired the congressionally chartered control board that oversaw the District's financial affairs. They laughed and caught up like old friends. Then, as things were winding down, Gandhi reached into his suit coat and handed Rivlin a laminated card.

On it was a graph that dipped and rose like a check mark, charting the city's journey from near bankruptcy to record reserves. Gandhi's name was in the lower left corner like an artist's signature.

Gandhi, 67, in his eighth year on the job, printed the cards recently and has felt compelled to pass them out as he labors to save his reputation and legacy in the wake of the largest government embezzlement case in D.C. history.

Seven months after the $50 million scheme in the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue came to light, and as co-conspirators -- six so far -- plead guilty, Gandhi remains on the defensive, trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.

A proud man who often tells of arriving from India 40 years ago with $7 in his pocket, Gandhi is a self-made success whose high-profile $185,000-a-year position made him a leader in the local Indian American community.

But there is little doubt that Gandhi has lost some stature and that he is wrestling with his bruising fall. Once he was the economic guru, the magician who brought order to chaos. Now he lives with the irony -- and maybe a bit of comeuppance -- of having an extraordinary fraud committed on his watch.

The scandal is perhaps the largest of its kind ever perpetrated in the country, dwarfing the $11 million fraud case in the Colorado Department of Revenue last year.

Even as he publicly accepts responsibility for not detecting it, Gandhi has, in more candid moments, spoken of being a forgotten victim whose hard-earned reputation was tarnished by a scandal that he says was not his fault.

"The whole tax scandal, it's like saying, you know, you do the best you can, and still bad things happen to you," Gandhi said. "When you see an unfair representation of what you do, why is it that certain people do these things against you? What is their agenda? What did you do wrong to them? . . . When you see someone who goes out to hunt and they hunt birds and you say, 'Well, what did birds do wrong to them?' And still they get killed."

That kind of image control has long been a staple of Gandhi's management strategy, frustrating some of his employees, who say he spends too much energy on his public standing. But so far, it has helped Gandhi fend off his hunters.

Despite early calls for his dismissal from some residents and D.C. Council members, he has used his power breakfasts and a speaking tour to shore up support from Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), the business community and Congress.

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