For Mayor Gray, a needed probe of hiring and a chance to mend credibility

Thursday, March 10, 2011; 7:50 PM

THE U.S. ATTORNEY'S Office, which generally works with great circumspection, this week issued a rare acknowledgement that it is evaluating allegations leveled against D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) by a former mayoral candidate who claims he got a job and cash as reward for his political activity in last year's mayoral campaign. "The U.S. Attorney's office takes these concerns seriously," read the statement, "and is working with the FBI to assess the matter." It's a welcome move by U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen that hopefully presages a swift but thorough examination of charges that have disquieted the District.

The U.S. attorney's announcement came on the same day that D.C. Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby decided - to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest - not to investigate the explosive claims by Sulaimon Brown that he was promised a job, and given money, in return for his campaign attacks on then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). Mr. Willoughby had met in January with Mr. Brown to discuss a job in the inspector general's office that, it turned out, already had been filled. Soon after that meeting, Mr. Brown was named a $110,000-a-year special assistant in the city's Department of Health Care Finance. Mr. Brown came forward with his charges against Mr. Gray and two of his campaign aides, Lorraine Green and Howard Brooks, when he was fired amid disclosures about his background and general incredulity about his appointment. Mr. Gray denied promising Mr. Brown a job and said he had no knowledge of any cash payments; Ms. Green and Mr. Brooks denied the charges.

Because it is problematic for the city's acting attorney general, Irvin B. Nathan, to investigate, since he was appointed by the mayor and is awaiting confirmation by the D.C. Council; and because the city's Office of Campaign Finance is lacking in credibility, the U.S. attorney is the only reliable means of getting to the bottom of this matter. The office's involvement does not necessarily signal the start of a criminal probe, and it's unclear what possible offenses - aside from violation of campaign finance reporting laws - might be involved. Generally it's the practice of the U.S. attorney not to comment on its investigative work, but we hope that Mr. Machen recognizes the need for the community to get answers to unsettling questions about its government.

In that regard, Mr. Gray ought to be more forthcoming about decisions made during the transition and the fledgling months of his administration. Leaving aside Mr. Brown's charges - and his history suggests the need for some skepticism - there have been other troubling signs of an administration seemingly more interested in the needs of people it knows than the people it is supposed to serve. How else to explain jobs going to the children of top administration or campaign officials, the pointed warning from the respected head of a local health association about political hacks being dumped into a vital city agency and salaries for top staff exceeding approved limits? A draft report by D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chair of the committee on government operations, barely begins to address these issues. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) is right to say there is a need for further review since the impression is "you have to know someone in [the] mayor's office to get a job . . . the friends and family club, the full employment act." Equally unsettling are recent Post reports detailing activities by those with ties to Mr. Gray seeking government help, some dating to his term as council chairman.

Mr. Gray has been in office less than 70 days, so there is plenty of time for a course correction that would allow him to deliver on the laudable promises of his campaign. Perhaps, as some have suggested, Mr. Gray has not been well served by those he trusted. Clearly, there were - to use his own words - "missteps" in his transition. But it's time for Mr. Gray to do more than admit to vague missteps, hire a good lawyer and hope the subject changes. He needs to do some real soul-searching about how things could have gone so wrong so quickly and then act fast to make the needed changes.

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