D.C. Council Probes Into Fraud and Donations Shut Down

By Nikita Stewart and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Two D.C. Council probes into allegations of wrongdoing at city agencies were blocked yesterday when Attorney General Peter Nickles advised officials not to testify.

Nickles told officials from the fire department and the Office of the Chief Technology Officer that their testimony before the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment could interfere with investigations.

Nickles's directive effectively halted the council's inquiries into the controversial donation of a firetruck and ambulance to a town in the Dominican Republic and into alleged fraud in the Office of the Chief Technology Officer, where two employees and a vendor were recently arrested and charged with bribery. Council members questioned the transparency of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration.

"It's clear that they are circling the wagons and shutting down the accountability process," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large).

In the case of the fire equipment, Mendelson and council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) pressed Chief Procurement Officer David P. Gragan on procedures for donating surplus property. The city recently gave a 10-year-old firetruck and ambulance to the nonprofit group Peaceoholics, which had started shipping it to the Caribbean town of Sosua until the council raised questions. Earlier this year, a deputy fire chief took an $810 taxpayer-paid trip to the island to confirm the town's need for the equipment.

The truck and ambulance -- which had gotten as far as Miami -- returned to the city last week and are now housed by the procurement office on Adams Street NE. Peaceoholics, co-founded by Fenty associate Ronald Moten, sends youths to Sosua for an annual boxing tournament in a cultural exchange program.

Gragan explained that, typically, property declared surplus by agency heads is transferred to his office. He said it is not unusual for the city to make donations to nonprofit organizations and foreign countries. Last year, the city donated outdated computers and furniture to eight nonprofit groups, he said.

Gragan said he signed a special rule to funnel the fire equipment through Peaceoholics. Nancy Hapeman, a general counsel, said the attorney general's staff had drafted the rule. But neither Gragan nor Hapeman could say with certainty who declared the property surplus or who decided it should go to Peaceoholics.

When Gragan said Wilbur Giles, the employee in charge of surplus property, was not at the hearing, Cheh asked, "Can someone please . . . get him here today?"

Cheh recessed the committee so Giles could attend the budget hearing and testify. An hour later, Gragan returned and told her, "Mr. Giles will not appear."

He said the attorney general advised that Giles not testify in order not to interfere with an investigation by the inspector general.

Nickles said he told technology employees that their comments could taint grand jury proceedings and advised procurement staffers that the city's inspector general is conducting an investigation at the request of council members. The council, he said, is showing "a very casual disregard for important constitutional rights and grand jury proceedings."

Nickles released a report Friday that found no wrongdoing with the donation and travel expenses.

Earlier, at a hearing on the technology office, Cheh threatened to subpoena Chris Willey, the District's chief technology officer, after he refused to discuss matters related to allegations that two employees and a subcontractor defrauded the city of at least $500,000.

Cheh started asking Willey about the steps his department was taking in the wake of the federal probe to guard against waste and fraud.

Willey did not answer her question, saying he did not want to interfere with the ongoing investigation.

Cheh said she had received clearance from the U.S. attorney's office for her questioning. Cheh, whose committee launched an investigation into the scandal last week, told Willey he could be subpoenaed if he did not cooperate.

"You can provide it to this committee voluntarily, or you can provide it via a subpoena to you," she said.

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