Mayor Gray's bad start on hiring

Friday, February 25, 2011; 9:40 PM

ON WEDNESDAY, Sulaimon Brown was judged by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) qualified for a $110,000-a-year city position. "We believe he has the requisite skills to do the job," Mr. Gray told a media corps incredulous over the appointment of an individual who had made himself a laughingstock during a sham run for mayor. Within 24 hours, Mr. Brown was given the boot; asked to explain why, Mr. Gray claimed not to "know the details." That's not good enough. Mr. Gray campaigned on promises of integrity and transparency in government, but questions surrounding Mr. Brown's appointment and dismissal - along with other troubling incidents - have his fledgling administration off to the wrong start.

Wayne Turnage, interim director of the Department of Health Care Finance, where Mr. Brown was working, has taken responsibility for Mr. Brown's hiring. He said the mayor's transition team recommended and vetted Mr. Brown but that it was his decision to hire him. Curiously, though, Mr. Brown's start date was Jan. 31, while Mr. Turnage's first day on the job was Feb. 1. (Administration officials explain that Mr. Turnage was working, unofficially, by mid-January.)

Equally bewildering is what kind of vetting job was done in light of subsequent revelations by the City Paper's Loose Lips columnist of a gun charge (later dropped) against Mr. Brown, a 1995 conviction for unlawful entry, and a 2007 restraining order involving the alleged stalking (vehemently denied by Mr. Brown) of a 13-year-old girl. His resume, as released by city officials, lacks dates of employment, and it appears, from the salary history he filed with D.C. government, that his last job was in 2008 at a New Jersey firm for which he worked for six months. He told us he has recently been living on savings and with help from others.

What distinguished Mr. Brown were his attacks during last year's Democratic primary against then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and his lavish praise of Mr. Gray. Mr. Brown had been an ardent supporter of Mr. Fenty four years earlier, but he soured when, according to people close to Mr. Fenty, he was denied a job in the Fenty administration. (Mr. Brown disputes that.)

Mr. Brown told us that Mr. Gray helped him get the job but provided no details. He wouldn't answer when we asked whether the job was a thank-you for his attacks on Mr. Fenty. Mr. Gray denies intervening for Mr. Brown, saying he knew he wanted a job and directed him - well after the election - to follow normal procedures. Still unclear is how someone judged qualified one day could be jettisoned the next.

We now know that the children of Mr. Gray's campaign chairwoman, his chief of staff and his communications director all have landed jobs in his administration. "I don't think this is nepotism at all," Mr. Gray told NBC4's Tom Sherwood, and never mind his regular attacks on Mr. Fenty for supposed favoritism toward frat buddies. Also disturbing was a City Paper report detailing possible conflicts of interest by two members of Mr. Gray's transition team. According to the Loose Lips report, Cellerino Bernardino, a former public works director who is an executive with the Fort Lincoln New Town Corp., pressed for city action on the firm's development project. The City Paper also reported that former city administrator Tom Downs, now an executive with a French transportation firm, asked for information about contracts that his company had previously bid on and might bid on again. Both told the City Paper they did nothing improper.

Mr. Gray has hired many fine people for top positions, retaining qualified staff from the Fenty administration and bringing in talented new blood. Still, the missteps are worrying. Neither Mr. Gray nor the city can afford a return to the sad days of city governance when whom you knew mattered more than what you knew or what you could accomplish.

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