D.C. Council members push for oversight

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2011; 10:58 PM

In effort to regain public confidence after a week of reports of nepotism and excessive spending at city hall, several D.C. Council members said Friday they will investigate some of the decisions made by Mayor Vincent C. Gray and council Chairman Kwame Brown.

In separate moves, council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said she plans to look into whether Gray (D) is overpaying his top officials, and council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Sekou Biddle (D-At Large) announced they will push for legislation requiring council approval of who gets to drive taxpayer-financed vehicles.

"We do have to restore the public's trust, that we are responsible with our dollars," said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). "But frankly, I am concerned that the law and regulations of the District of Columbia were not followed not only in Chairman's Brown case but in other cases."

On Sunday, The Washington Post reported that city officials were asked to lease a "fully loaded" Lincoln Navigator L for Brown (D) at a cost of about $2,000 a month. The ensuing uproar led Brown to say he is returning the luxury sport-utility vehicle, although it is unclear whether the city can cancel its lease early.

Wells, who heads the Public Works and Transportation Committee, plans to release a preliminary report on the matter Monday.

The Post also reported this week that Gray is paying many of his top managers tens of thousands of dollars more than former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) paid officials in similar positions. In some cases, the pay exceeds the job-category salary cap. Gray also had to defend how the children of two senior administration officials ended up on the payroll.

On Thursday, the administration also had to do damage control after Sulaimon Brown, recently hired as special assistant in the Department of Health Care Finance at a $110,000-a-year salary, was dismissed after the City Paper published an article about a restraining order issued against him in 2007.

On Friday, the council's Health Committee held a confirmation hearing for Wayne Turnage, the interim director of the finance agency who hired Brown after Gray's transition team recommended him for a job. Committee Chairman David A. Catania (I-At Large) said he hoped the agency, which has oversight of the Medicaid program, can put the matter behind it.

But Sharon Baskerville, head of the D.C. Primary Care Association, told the committee she remains concerned that some recent political appointees in the agency are not skilled enough in health-care matters.

Although she deferred judgment on whether Brown should have been hired, Baskerville said another special assistant was hired recently "without evidence of qualifications." She declined to identify whom she was referring to but said she thinks the person had worked for Gray's campaign and transition.

"I am warning, this is not the department to dump people," Baskerville said in an interview. "My warning is this is critical. . . . There are 230,000 people in D.C. who depend on Medicaid . . . and we have a huge deficit and huge issues to deal with, and only the highest-qualified can help navigate it."

Baskerville's testimony led to a tense discussion with council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). He said that Baskerville and the media were being unfair to Gray. Certain city jobs should go "to the person who won the election," Barry said.

"I am sick and tired of the news people talking about cronyism and favorites," said Barry, a former four-term mayor. "Who's [Gray] supposed to hire? His enemies? No, just 'cause you're a friend of the mayor's doesn't mean you're not qualified'."

But Cheh, who campaigned for both Brown and Gray in last year's election, said council leaders should move quickly to provide oversight of the administration.

As chairwoman of the Committee on Government and the Environment, Cheh plans to explore whether Gray staffers' salaries are commensurate with their experience and qualifications.

"I want to look at those with relatively robust salaries and see what their qualifications are," said Cheh, who has requested the records of all administration officials being paid more than is laid out in city regulations for what employees in specific job categories should earn.

Cheh sent Brown a note two days ago proposing the council slash its budget and council members' pay by 10 percent.

Staff writer Mike DeBonis contributed to this article.

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