D.C. Mayor Gray's questionable appointments

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Saturday, March 5, 2011

"TO THE VICTOR goes the spoils." That boastful lesson in D.C. civics from Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry (D)√ pretty much explains how six-figure-income jobs in a critical agency went to individuals whose questionable backgrounds were seemingly offset by their unabashed political support for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).√ Mr. Gray's vow to institute more stringent vetting of his political appointees, while welcome, doesn't address the central issue of whether all those given city jobs are up to the job.

We recognize, as Mr. Barry pointed out, that Mr. Gray won the election and it's his right to have an administration with people of his choosing. Indeed, that's why D.C. law allows for appointees who need no other approval and who serve at the mayor's pleasure. Clearly, though, there's a problem if they aren't equipped to do the job - or, as has been known to happen in D.C. government, there is no job, just a fancy title and a big salary.

By no means are we painting Mr. Gray's appointments with a broad brush; as we have noted, he has brought in promising new talent while retaining some proven hands. Nonetheless, revelations about some of his picks raise troubling questions. Most attention has centered on the perplexing decision (since reversed) to give a $110,000-a-year job in the city's Department of Health Care Finance to minor mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown. Also getting a job in that all-important agency - to the tune of $133,000 a year - is another campaign supporter with embarrassing legal issues. Talib Karim appears to have used physical force on his ex-wife; according to the City Paper's Loose Lips, a D.C. Court of Appeals ruling upheld a protective order against him. He also had a federal tax lien filed against him, defaulted on student loans and failed to pay child support, according to court records.

Curiously, Mr. Karim started work as the agency's chief of staff on the first full day of the Gray administration, well before the agency's director - who claimed that "all decisions about personnel begin and end with me" - was named. A spokeswoman for Mr. Karim disputed suggestions he was not qualified, citing his work as a counsel on Capitol Hill. So why did a witness testifying at a recent council hearing feel the need to raise concern about stacking the agency, which oversees a third of the city budget, with political supporters lacking in health-care knowledge? "I am warning, this is not the department to dump people," said Sharon Baskerville, head of the D.C. Primary Care Association.

Politically connected hires also seem to have occurred in the Parks and Recreation Department. Questioned about the appointment of Cherita Whiting, an early supporter of Mr. Gray who pleaded guilty to a wire fraud charge, as "special assistant"; and Nicholas Hall, son of Mr. Gray's chief of staff, as "writer-editor." Parks director Jesus Aguirre told the council: "I did not request them. I did not interview them." Mr. Hall has since resigned.

The latest disclosures prompted Mr. Gray to acknowledge shortcomings in the vetting process and to order a new review. While it's reassuring that the Metropolitan Police Department will conduct criminal background checks, more important questions are left unanswered. Were plum jobs handed out as thank-yous for political favors? Can the existence of these positions be justified in these hard financial times? And are those holding the posts the best qualified to do the job?


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