D.C. Council Members Seek Investigation of Gift of Firetruck, Ambulance

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 4, 2009

Two D.C. Council members are pushing for an independent investigation into Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's decision to donate surplus fire equipment to a small beach town in the Dominican Republic, even as Attorney General Peter Nickles issued a report yesterday that concluded city officials did nothing wrong.

In his report, Nickles described the transfer as a humanitarian effort, although he added that the old firetruck and ambulance at the center of the controversy should be returned to taxpayers to "remove any possible concerns" from the public.

The city "was operating with the very best of intentions and with the interests of not only the District but also those in need in [the Dominican Republic] in mind," Nickles wrote. Nickles's report comes as council members Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) are stepping up their efforts to look into the transfer after several reports in the Washington Examiner. The Washington Post wrote an editorial about the issue yesterday.

Mendelson, chairman of the Public Safety and Judiciary Committee, and Cheh, who oversees the Government Operations Committee, wrote the city's inspector general yesterday, asking that he launch a probe.

Mendelson said yesterday that he wants Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby to investigate because, he alleges, Nickles has a conflict because he was involved in the rule change that allowed the donation. Mendelson said he's frustrated that the Fenty administration has been slow in explaining the circumstances surrounding the donation.

"The issue here has to do with accountability, transparency," Mendelson said.

But Nickles said he's confident he conducted a fair, comprehensive review of the matter.

Surplus city equipment is often auctioned off to recoup some value for taxpayers, although it is sometimes given to nonprofit groups. In this case, the fire equipment was turned over to Peaceoholics, a nonprofit group that targets at-risk youths, after city officials enacted an emergency rule change March 20.

According to Nickles's report, Peaceoholics and some other District groups have been involved in programs to take at-risk youth to the Dominican Republican for cross-cultural and athletic activities.

Nickles said it's against that backdrop that a delegation from Sosua in the Dominican Republican traveled to Washington in late 2007 and requested the city give it a firetruck and an ambulance.

Sosua, described by Nickles as impoverished, has no ambulance, and its firetruck is more than 40 years old, according to the report. The fire equipment, which initially cost the city about $350,000 but is now worth far less, was sent in late March.

In addition to the remaining value of the equipment, some have questioned why Ronald Gill Jr., a deputy chief with the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services, traveled to the Dominican Republic to facilitate the transfer.

Gill billed taxpayers $800 for his trip. Nickles's report says Gill went to Sosua out of "due diligence" to "confirm their need."

To help determine whether any other city officials also traveled to the Dominican Republic, Mendelson and Cheh yesterday asked the Fenty administration for a "detailed accounting of every travel expenditure incurred by the Executive Office of the Mayor and every subordinate agency" from December through March.

Cheh has also scheduled a budget oversight hearing for Monday morning for the Office of Procurement -- where she'll raise questions about the firetruck and ambulance-- and the Office of the Chief Technology Officer and its recent bribery scandal.

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