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D.C. scandals show that Mayor Gray should part ways with some advisers

By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 17, 2011; 8:18 PM

Back during last year's mayoral campaign, when challenger Vince Gray was slamming incumbent Adrian Fenty for sleazy ethics, I asked everybody I could whether Gray was honest and could be trusted to do better than the man he wanted to replace.

The consistent answer: Gray, as an individual, is as straight as they come, but we worry about some of the people around him. He is sometimes a poor judge of character and can be too loyal and indulgent toward people who could serve him and the city poorly.

In the wake of the blockbuster scandal involving alleged payments by Gray's campaign to a third mayoral candidate, Sulaimon Brown, it's too soon to say whether the mayor himself is ethically compromised. But there's no question that some top advisers are directly implicated in the spate of controversies threatening his young administration, and the mayor ought to part ways with them as soon as possible.

Gray should start by putting some distance between himself and Lorraine Green, chairman of his campaign and transition. She's at the center of Brown's explosive allegations that the Gray campaign offered him a job and handed him cash in envelopes in exchange for hammering Fenty at debates.

Then Gray could follow up by replacing one of Green's proteges, Gerri Mason Hall, who is his chief of staff. She's shown lousy political judgment. She allowed her boss to be embarrassed by the revelation that her child along with offspring of three other city officials or advisers had gotten jobs in the administration. (Three of the four have left or are leaving.)

Unfortunately, Gray is showing no signs of following this advice. According to sources familiar with his thinking, the mayor doesn't think Green would do anything illicit. Although he's told Hall directly that she showed bad judgment in allowing the apparently nepotistic hiring to take place, Gray still has confidence she can do a good job as chief of staff, according to the sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because formal investigations are beginning into the Brown controversy.

The mayor also thinks that he's adequately addressed the problem of poorly vetting middle-ranking officials before they are hired. He's ordered all political appointees to be subject to the same background checks as cabinet-level positions. He's counting on his deputy mayors, City Administrator Allen Lew and the Human Resources Department to make sure no more unsuitable people are hired.

Gray also plans to be more directly involved in the process himself.

"For the immediate future, nobody in government gets hired into the excepted service without [the mayor] knowing it," one of the sources said.

For the city's sake, let's hope Gray is correct that these responses will be sufficient. I'm skeptical, because he's still maintaining close ties with advisers whose judgment, at the least, is questionable.

Looking at Green, for example, why on earth did she, as campaign chairman, have dealings with somebody like Sulaimon Brown? The guy was erratic, to put it mildly, when he ranted against Fenty at debates. The campaign didn't need his help. Gray was ahead of Fenty in the polls in January, months before anybody ever heard of Brown. Gray won by a landslide.

Green could well be correct that Brown is lying when he says she gave him money and promised him a job in exchange for bashing Fenty. His word is suspect, partly because he's a disgruntled ex-employee.

But it already looks bad that Green interacted with him. Plus, there's no getting around the fact that he says he was promised a city job - and, for a short time, he got one.

Then there's the handling of the transition, which Green oversaw.

Several people are receiving substantially higher salaries than their counterparts in the Fenty administration, even as the city struggles with a $320 million budget shortfall.

This is not a record that inspires confidence.

Meanwhile, Hall, as chief of staff, doesn't seem to be strong enough, or politically savvy enough, to protect Gray's interests by telling people "no" when they ask for favors. Gray needs somebody to do that for him.

What about the risk that the mayor himself will be implicated in wrongdoing in the Brown affair? That's certainly the biggest danger he faces, but right now, it seems to be a long way from being proved.

Investigating that will take awhile. Gray needs to send a message now that things are changing. One way would be to withdraw his nomination of Green to chair the board of the Washington Convention Center and Sports Authority. Better to hurt the feelings of a longtime friend than let bad judgment wreck an administration.

Robert McCartney discusses local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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