Patronage Persists in D.C.

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Robert Adams, a contractor who lives in Southeast Washington, tells of a friend who found jobs for four relatives at the D.C. Public Works Department. Another friend, a District police officer, helped a brother get hired by the city, Adams says.

So what's wrong with D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) using taxpayer money to hire his girlfriend as a consultant?

Absolutely nothing, Adams said. In fact, he expects government officials to take care of their friends and family, and he sees no harm as long as "they aren't hurting nobody. It's all about who you know, whether you've got the experience or not," said Adams, 53, sitting on his porch in Congress Heights. "That's the way the world works."

For more than a decade, District leaders have sought to reverse the government's long-standing reputation for dysfunction, a reputation fueled in part by periodic revelations about top officials rewarding friends with jobs and contracts.

Yet, even as mayors have campaigned on promises to tighten hiring practices, and District lawmakers say they employ and recommend only the most qualified workers, patronage persists. It is a tradition stretching back to before home rule, when members of Congress used the city's bureaucracy as a hiring hall for their constituents.

"I tried to clean it up, and we made a lot of headway," said former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), before volunteering that he engaged in the practice. "No one is without sin, and by no means has this been completely corrected. You have to constantly fight it."

As long as mayors and members of Congress and even presidents have hunted for votes, patronage has been practiced in cities and counties far and wide, almost regardless of reform efforts. President John F. Kennedy's appointment of his brother Robert as attorney general triggered charges of nepotism. In New York, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who made his reputation as a corruption-busting prosecutor, found a place for his cousin's wife and at least two other relatives in city agencies. Chicago's attempts at reform remain a work in progress: A court-appointed monitor recently concluded that patronage hiring endures in city agencies.

To encourage more rigorous hiring practices, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration has stepped up employee evaluations and added specific goals to its job postings. Yet Fenty (D) has been criticized for trying to hand out jobs to cronies. He nominated Lori Lee, a close friend of his wife's, to be chairman of the Public Service Commission, then withdrew her name after government watchdogs objected. He ended up appointing Lee to one of two other seats on the panel instead.

The mayor also tried to name a fraternity brother to the board of trustees at the University of the District of Columbia, a nomination he withdrew after more criticism.

Barry's granting a contract to then-girlfriend Donna Watts-Brighthaupt revived memories of controversies that tarnished his mayoralty. But Barry was defiant about the hire, saying he would do it again because it is legal. "Unless the law changes, why not?" he asked.

Watts-Brighthaupt's hiring, as well as grants Barry made to not-for-profit groups, prompted D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) to launch an investigation. Barry also has been the target of criticism from some colleagues, including council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who called the episode a setback for a government trying to "change the culture to emphasize merit and appropriate skill sets and less personal relationships and familial ties."

"It places us in a position of retreat at a time when we have been working to restore the working of government and our image," said Catania, who said he has never hired a personal friend in his office or recommended one to a city agency. "Personal ties account for less than they did 10 years ago. But I'd be lying if I said they no longer still matter. We're not immune. We're not dissimilar to other jurisdictions. There's no such thing as an entirely clean government."

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