Gray orders new checks on appointees; source says Sulaimon Brown had thorough vetting

By Tim Craig and Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 4, 2011; 12:45 AM

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray said Thursday that having a criminal record would not automatically disqualify someone from serving in some positions in his administration. But he is asking city police to again scrutinize senior and mid-level managers he has hired thus far, fearful that the initial vetting process was not thorough enough.

Speaking to reporters a day after he ordered new background checks for dozens of recent hires, Gray (D) said he takes responsibility for the hiring of a few members of his administration who had legal troubles in the past.

"I'm the mayor, and the buck stops with me, and I wish we had known some of the information that has come out," Gray said.

But a source close to the transition said at least one of the controversial hires - Sulaimon Brown - had been extensively investigated before he was offered the job, including a police background check.

"Sulaimon Brown was vetted more thoroughly than a lot of people," said the source, who asked to remain anonymous.

Brown was fired from a $110,000-a-year job in the Department of Health Care Finance last week after Washington City Paper reported on a 2007 restraining order involving allegations that he had stalked a 13-year-old girl. The source said the allegations were included in a report delivered to the Gray transition.

On Wednesday, City Paper reported that a restraining order was filed in 2008 against another senior manager at Health Care Finance, Talib Karim, after he was accused of pushing his wife. He was not vetted during the transition, the source said.

Karim, the agency's chief of staff, had been a key Gray supporter during the campaign against then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

On Thursday, Gray said that the two cases appear isolated and that few controversies have erupted over his cabinet picks.

In a rare after-hours order from the mayor's office, Gray issued a statement Wednesday announcing that he was going to have D.C. police "check and double-check" the backgrounds of political appointees. If any are found to have criminal records, Gray said, decisions will be made case by case on whether they should keep their positions.

"Each case will be decided on its merits," said Gray, who has spoken of the need to better reintegrate former offenders into society.

But two weeks of bad news for Gray - who pledged during his campaign to make ethics a top priority - appear to have knocked him off kilter as he starts his third month in office.

According to Gray and key advisers, he and his transition team focused on finding and vetting contenders for cabinet-level positions. With many cabinet choices not made until after Gray took office, the same level of scrutiny had not been applied to those hires that are starting to fill the 275 senior and mid-level political positions in city government.

Some of Gray's friends and advisers say the administration's problems can be traced in part to the transition, which appeared to be slow getting off the ground and at times disorganized.

Gray appointed Reuben O. Charles, who had been one of his top fundraisers, to head up the transition, along with Lorraine Green, a Gray confidante and Amtrak vice president. Charles, a businessman with no other experience in government, was pounded by news reports on judgments and liens that had been filed against him in other states.

In December, amid the controversy over Charles's past, Gray vowed to redouble efforts to vet his advisers and potential hires. The process was headed up by Capitol Inquiry, an investigative firm headed by a former newspaper reporter, Ken Cummins.

Douglas Patton, a lawyer who led fundraising for Gray's campaign and transition, said about 30 candidates were vetted and the information was turned over to Green, a human resources specialist, and other senior members of the transition.

Gray said in Wednesday's statement that all of his cabinet-level appointments had been subjected to background checks of, among other areas, credit histories, criminal records, driving records, bankruptcies, property ownership, liens and judgments. The checks also covered education and legal and business affiliations. Now, Gray said, the city's Department of Human Resources and the police department will "apply those same criteria to everybody."

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the Health Committee, said Gray needs to move swiftly to restore the public's trust.

"This is a dangerous distraction, to have the government reeling from one day to the next on these items," Catania said. "The sooner we go back to merit being the deciding factor [in hiring], the better off we will be."

Tony Bullock, who served as communications director for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), said it is common for new administrations to struggle over how extensive the vetting process should be for new hires. Bullock said it is challenging and expensive to conduct background checks on all new hires.

Williams was embarrassed in 2002 when his pick for fire chief, Ronnie Few, was forced to resign after questions arose about possible fabrications on his resume. After that controversy, the Williams administration stepped up efforts to screen applicants for senior city jobs, Bullock said.

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