Report critical of Kwame Brown's wheels - and those of others

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 10:53 AM

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown "inappropriately requested" a Lincoln Navigator and District officials violated the law by leasing the luxury SUV, according to a council report released Monday that raises new questions about how some local leaders may be getting around the city.

The report, issued by the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, concludes that Brown (D) requested the SUV despite a 2004 city law that prohibits the leasing or buying of city vehicles that get fewer than 22 miles per gallon. According to the Web site for Navigator, the SUV gets 14 miles a gallon in city driving and 20 miles a gallon on the highway.

The committee found that the Department of Public Works, which is in charge of the city's non-emergency fleet program, disregarded the law in Brown's case and in the acquisition of dozens of other vehicles in recent years. DPW has purchased or leased at least 28 SUVs since 2004 for District employees for reasons "not related to security" or emergency response, the report stated.

But Bill Howland, the director of the Department of Public Works under both the current and former mayors, disputed that his agency was unaware of the law or not abiding by it. He noted that the fuel efficiency requirement allows for exceptions for "snow and emergencies."

The council report also raised questions about whether taxpayers have been paying for some agency heads and senior government officials to be chauffeured by city employees. District law states that "no D.C. government employee is allowed to serve as a driver or chauffeur of another D.C. government employee, except the Mayor," unless written authorization is provided, according to the report.

"It appears that the laws and regulations of the District have not been followed as it relates to SUVs, fuel efficiency, authorized use, authorized drivers, and overall fleet management," the report concludes.

Last week, The Washington Post reported that city officials were asked to lease a "fully loaded" Lincoln Navigator L for Brown 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.

The leasing controversy has battered Brown's public image. On Thursday, he was booed by some while trying to speak at a fundraiser at the Kennedy Center for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, according some people who attended.

Brown was unavailable for comment Monday. But he issued a statement praising council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the chairman of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, for looking into how the city leases vehicles.

"I agree that the procurement process requires a top to bottom review, and trust that the committee will make the necessary recommendations for changes when the final report is issued," he said.

Brown is not the only city official whose vehicle could face scrutiny. The 2010 Lincoln Navigator L that the D.C. police leased as Gray's vehicle also is "fully loaded," according to a purchase order. The vehicle, which leases for $1,941 a month, includes a "navigation system" and "entertainment system."

In an e-mail, police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said the vehicle is comparable to those used by previous mayors.

The report noted that Brown, as council chairman, is entitled to an official vehicle to travel between his home and office and for use in his daily work.

But Wells said he is dismayed that city policies on SUVs haven't been followed.

"We need to have compliance with D.C. law," the council member said. "We need to be sure we are not wasting money. There is no reason I know of to have vehicles that either do not meet the EPA [miles per gallon] standards or why we need to be purchasing SUVs that are more expensive than a compact or mid-sized sedan."

Wells, who stressed that Monday's report was preliminary, has scheduled an oversight hearing on the city's fleet management policies for March 17.

According to Wells' committee, the DPW fleet includes at least 42 SUVs "not related to security, emergency, rescue or armored vehicle purposes."

Howland said the SUVs were bought because they were needed "in either snow or some other emergency."

"We knew what the law was, and we complied with the law," he said. According to the D.C. code, the law makes an exception for snow removal.

Howland added that since 2008, DPW has been refusing to purchase even "full-sized" vehicles for city agencies and employees. Instead, he said, agency employees and leaders are being given mid-sized vehicles such as Chevy Impalas.

An exception, however, was made for Brown, Howland said.

"He is the second-highest official in the city," Howland said. "In my judgment, I used it as an emergency vehicle."

Former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) was known to drive around town in a Smart Car, but many of the city SUVs appear to have been purchased during his administration.

Former council member Carol Schwartz, who sponsored the legislation on SUV procurement, said she is "disturbed" that the law apparently has not been followed.

"It's not like we live in mountainous terrain that you need these great big SUVs to be able to get around," she said. "They are very expensive, and they are gas guzzlers, and they are polluters, and they are so heavy they damage our roads."

In a statement Monday afternoon, City Administrator Allen Y. Lew said his office will review the District's fleet procurement policies.

Wells said he also is troubled by the report's preliminary findings that some agency heads are being driven around by chauffeurs.

"A preliminary review of information shared by employees at several agencies shows that some agency and department directors are provided not only with vehicles for their use during the day, but agency staff serve as dedicated drivers of the vehicles," the report says without naming anyone specifically.

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