Williams Charts an Independent Course
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 1998;
Anthony A. Williams knew there was no place to hide. It was February 1997, the release date for the audit covering his first full year as the District's chief financial officer.
The bottom line wasn't pretty: Tax records still were so unreliable that the outside auditors said they couldn't determine whether $40 million in business tax receivables were real or imagined. They also said that dozens of deficiencies that they had identified a year earlier including failures to safeguard cash and flagrant violations of contracting laws still hadn't been corrected.
The auditors gave a "qualified" opinion on the state of District finances.
Williams, who resigned as CFO in June to enter the Sept. 15 Democratic primary for mayor, gave himself and his newly recruited top staff precisely a year. Either they would straighten out the city's financial system and produce an unqualified opinion, he said, or he would resign his $115,000-a-year post.
"If we haven't cleaned up the audit by next year," Williams said at the time, "we need to find something else to do."
A year later, Williams and his staff had no need to resign. They not only had resolved 200 deficiencies and attained an unqualified audit, but they also had produced a $185.9 million budget surplus, a development that moved up the timetable for a return to home rule by a full two years.
The surplus amounted to a $259.9 million turnaround original budget projections had forecast a $74 million deficit that was attributable to a number of factors, among them a strong economy, a booming stock market and one-time revenue gains of $53.6 million from the sale of a city prison and $53.9 million from Medicaid cost adjustments.
But Williams's Office of Tax and Revenue had taken in $110 million more than the previous year, including $33 million that resulted from improved tax collections and monitoring. And spending controls on city agencies had helped reduce expenditures by $41.5 million.
The numbers told only part of the story. Williams, 47, had overhauled a financial bureaucracy of 900 employees, hiring dozens of finance professionals from outside the city government, procuring new computer systems, redesigning the city's ossified property tax system and restoring accountability to tax administration, enforcement and collection.
Almost three years after Williams became chief financial officer, his office had processed and mailed 148,000 income tax refunds within 15 days of filing, the District's bond rating was up and its budget was running a surplus projected to hit $231 million when the current fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
Though he had much success to point to by the time he resigned to run for mayor, there had been more than a little controversy and plenty of pointed criticism along the way.
In April, when a $60 million deficit was uncovered in D.C. public schools, critics said Williams should shoulder part of the blame. He did though he noted that the presidentially appointed D.C. financial control board had ordered him to stay out of school system finances. Williams also noted that the deficit was disclosed only after he finally decided to ignore that order, replacing the control board's handpicked finance chief with one of his trusted aides.
A year earlier, far greater criticism had been leveled at Williams. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) blasted him for "disgraceful" conduct in going behind the backs of Mayor Marion Barry and the control board to urge Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the District, to give him Barry's authority over contracting, information systems and real estate.
Williams apologized publicly a day later, attributing the back-channel attempt to expand his own authority to "adolescent exuberance" and impatience with the Barry administration's failure to implement reforms in all three areas.
But Williams's most controversial move the one that has stuck in the minds of average citizens came in early 1997, when he fired 165 city finance workers he had identified as unworthy of their jobs. The firings earned Williams the undying enmity of the District's public employee unions, whose leaders continue to view Williams as hostile to labor.
David Schlein, a vice president at the American Federation of Government Employees, says the way in which Williams chose to fire the workers, without notice and without appeal most were given less than a day to clean out their desks and vacate the premises "was devastating and humiliating."
Williams defended the firings in June in an attempt to win labor's endorsement in the mayor's race an endorsement that ultimately went to D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7).
The city's fiscal crisis, Williams wrote in answering a labor questionnaire, left him "no option but to take draconian steps. If it were not for the action I took, the District would not have a balanced budget."
Williams expounded on that defense in an interview: "We had a $300 million cash deficit, a huge accumulated deficit, vendors were waiting to get paid, our tax operation was basically in collapse, internal controls were nonexistent in many places, and we were at a point of crisis. And I think that those extraordinary conditions required extraordinary action.
"Folks were removed because I thought it was vitally important to reconstitute staff to meet our critical objectives," Williams said. "This was essentially trying to make a call, under emergency conditions, about who could and couldn't do the work. I would do what I had to do again. I don't relish it, but I also don't hide from it."
Williams was working nights as a deliveryman at Bulldog Pizza, well on his way to graduating magna cum laude from Yale College, when he took the plunge into politics.
Althea Jackson Tyson, unofficial Democratic boss of the 2nd Ward in New Haven, Conn., remembers the serious undergraduate who came to her home one day in 1980 to ask for her blessing. He got it on the spot, she recalled, primarily because there wasn't anybody else who wanted to run for a seat on the New Haven Board of Aldermen.
It was a decision she never came to regret. "He had a vision of what he wanted to do," Tyson said in a recent interview. "He definitely stood for honesty, that's one thing I remember about him, which is kind of rare for a politician. Sometimes I remember thinking, 'I don't know if this kid is going to go far.' He was honest, straightforward very high character."
Paul Bass, now associate editor of New Haven's alternative weekly, the Advocate, remembers Williams, an African American, as "very liberal," very "pro-labor" and very willing to take on the city's African American political establishment so much so, Bass said, that some blacks accused him of being disloyal to the community.
"But the neighborhood never turned against him," Bass said, noting that Williams was elected twice by a largely black ward that had only a small proportion of Yale students.
"He was one of the best elected officials I've seen in 20 years here," Bass said. "He had the most integrity, the most independence and he was the smartest."
Williams resigned his seat in 1983 and spent the next four years at Harvard, earning a law degree and a master's in public policy. He returned to public life in 1988, hired by one of his former classmates at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Chris Grace, as head of neighborhood housing and development at the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
With downtown development booming in Boston but surrounding neighborhoods not feeling much positive effect much like the situation in Washington now Williams managed a program for developing low-income housing using federal money and so-called "linkage" funds contributed by downtown developers for neighborhood renewal.
He is best remembered there for an incident early in his tenure in which he exhibited the kind of independence that would come to define his relationship with Barry. Two burly city contractors beat him to a pulp for refusing to pay them for work they claimed to have done for the city. They were ultimately convicted of assault.
"Our mission, both in Boston and St. Louis, was to come in and change the way things were being done the point was to get more results for the same amount of money," said John Huggins, another classmate from the Kennedy School who worked with Grace and Williams in both cities. "And Tony was able to foster the right balance between supporting the people who'd been there while getting them to see that things should be done differently or better and that's a really difficult job in public management."
Huggins described Williams's work in Boston and St. Louis as "an impressive commitment" to community development, "helping communities improve themselves."
Williams left St. Louis in 1991 to take a job as deputy state comptroller in Connecticut, a move that gave him day-to-day responsibility for managing 290 employees and clearly marked his move into the world of public finance.
When he arrived on the job, Connecticut state government was in crisis. The crisis stemmed from a decision by then-Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. to shut down the state because the legislature had failed to enact a budget. The impasse continued for months, recalled Bill Curry, who was state comptroller and Williams's boss, leaving the comptroller's office to decide which services the state was legally bound to continue funding.
"Tony was completely the operations guy," said Curry, who served as counselor to President Clinton from 1994 to 1996. "But at the same time, Tony was collaborating with me every day in brainstorming where we were taking [the office] and what issues we were doing next. Tony was a manager with a vision and also a pretty good sense of politics. There isn't anyone who I would speak more enthusiastically about."
It was partly through Curry, who worked extensively for Clinton's first campaign in 1992, that Williams came to the attention of transition team members trying to stock the new administration with talent. Williams came to Washington as the first chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a $62.3 billion financial behemoth made up of 29 agencies scattered across the country and around the world.
His first task was to define exactly what it was the chief financial officer was supposed to do and how he was supposed to do it the same task he would face two years later as the District's first CFO.
"I think he was effective," said Irwin T. David, a career financial official whom Williams inherited as his deputy. "He helped to set the vision, he provided the leadership and the guidance, but he gave people the flexibility to get it done," said David, who is now chief financial officer for the National Weather Service. "He had a very high quality standard and if we didn't achieve that high quality standard, we went back and did it again."
Williams's "navigator" letter to Mayor Barry, in which he applied for the job of chief financial officer and spun a long analogy about the importance of navigators who possess "a good idea of their destination," now has a permanent place in the District's political lore.
If Barry took the letter at face value and didn't check out Williams's past his battle against the political establishment in New Haven, his willingness to get punched out in St. Louis, his financial sleuthing in the Connecticut comptroller's office the mayor soon realized his handpicked navigator wouldn't take orders.
The two were at each other's throats in a little over a month, with Barry trying to control which city contractors got backlogged payments first and Williams refusing to allow it.
"He was not going to back down to Marion Barry," said Jamin B. Raskin, a law professor at American University who closely follows local government. "It was an interesting sort of culture clash."
In January 1996, Williams successfully demanded that the control board fire the District's budget director, a Barry loyalist, for using inaccurate budget figures at the mayor's behest. The following week, Williams took issue with Barry's budget formulation, saying the District's projected deficit for the year might be $200 million, instead of the $59 million Barry was forecasting.
A year later, Williams led the charge against a debt restructuring plan proposed by Barry that would have saved $50 million in the short term and forestalled additional budget cuts, calling the move a gimmick that would have cost millions more in the long run.
And in March 1997, Williams stepped in and refused an order from Barry's city administrator, Michael C. Rogers, to pay $18.9 million to a Medicaid contractor with apparent close ties to the mayor. City auditors believed the firm was owed only $6.2 million.
"My job," Williams said at the time, "is to make sure the District isn't robbed blind."
Williams also demonstrated his independence, repeatedly, by firing employees he deemed incapable of performing adequately.
In the summer of 1996, with the District's $600 million property tax portfolio "on the verge of collapse," in Williams's estimation, he fired two top officials in charge of assessments and placed four others on administrative leave pending evaluation after thousands of properties had been erroneously reassessed.
A month after he fired the two assessment officials, Williams ordered his first purge and fired 38 employees in finance-related jobs, using powers vested in his office by Congress to fire all city finance and budget personnel "at will," without stating any cause.
Williams's second purge of the ranks came the following January, when he fired 165 finance employees, saying they lacked the commitment and skills to work in city finance.
"The District government," he said at the time, "does not exist to provide employment."
Iris Gartrell, who worked in investigations and collections at the Office of Tax and Revenue, was one of the workers Williams fired.
"Any citizen in the United States should be informed as to why they were terminated," Gartrell said. "He announced to the press the reason we were terminated but he didn't tell us. ... The entire act was devious."
Williams responded that he would handle the firings differently if he could do it again. "We all learn," he said. "But it was time for accountability. The employees were given severance pay. They were allowed to retire when that was appropriate. My wife can tell you I was tormented by what we had to do. But we had to take the action and move on."
Williams's firings were applauded on Capitol Hill and by control board Chairman Andrew F. Brimmer, whose support Williams worked assiduously to maintain.
When Brimmer and the control board gave Williams a $20,000 bonus in March for his role in balancing the budget and achieving the clean audit, the news drew a surprising response from the mayor.
"He deserves every penny of it," Barry said. "I support it wholeheartedly. It was long overdue."
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