A high level official in the D.C. Department of Human Resources stood in a hallway at the District Building last week, complaining to a reporter about the recently disclosed findings of city investigators probing allegations of nepotism and cronyism in the troubled agency.
"I just don't understand it," the official said, shaking his head in mild disgust. "Two or three people I know could have told him what was really going on but the auditors didn't talk to them."
The official's bewilderment with the inconclusive findings of three investigations released last week and his skepticism about the techniques being used was echoed in comments by other well-placed sources in the massive agency.
The sources told of persons under investigation joking with friends about how short their interviews with investigators were and how they lied to them. Information was offered about further abuses in the agency, one source said, but probers sloughed it off, preferring to stick to a narrower, predetermined path of investigation.
The reactions within DHR to the probes is divided, the sources said. Faithful followers of the agency's charismatic suspended director Joseph P. Yeldell applauded some findings as vindication of Yeldell's long-professed innocence, but condemned other more critical disclosure as the work of sloppy sleuths.
Yeldell's detractors say the indecisive findings and Yeldell's well-publicized responses to them only added to the slumping morale and continuing state of limbo that has plagued the department during the past two months.
"We've crossed the Rubicon now," a senior DHR official said recently, wishing the furor over Yeldell would die down. "We've got to go on now and deal with the programs and forget about Joe Yeldell."
After two months of controversy, the city got its first sampling last week of findings from six investigations of alleged abuses in hiring, leasing and contracting practices in DHR, the huge agency that daily touches the lives of one of every five District residents.
Reports from the mayor's Office of Municipal Audit and Inspection, city administrator Julian R. Dugas and the D.C. Auditor were made public. This week, at least three more reports - two of which will be refined versions of documents disclosed last week - are scheduled to be released.
The disclosures strongly criticized DHR personnel operations as violating the agency's own guidelines against favoritism. They blamed Yeldell for having a personal role in the seemingly irregular hiring of five persons - including one close relative - and raised questions about the hiring last November of his wife Gladys in the city personnel department.
The reports' conclusions were consistently hedged with phrases like "appear to," "strong indications of," "suggests" and "may have." The bottom line on all of the reports was that further study by someone else would be necessary to determine if any wrong were actually done.
The result has been that suspicions have grown about the reports, with some calling them a "whitewash," others reading far more into the findings than is actually there and still others not knowing quite what to think.
The vagueness of some conclusions is a product of the limitations of the investigators, particularly the two audit offices, whose findings have been discussed most.
Neither audit office for example, can bring formal charges, declare that wrong has been done or impose penalties. As investigators, moreover, neither office can compel persons to testify under oath and indeed, hardly any of the testimony received by the auditors in their investigations has been sworn.
"You have to take what they offer you," said David Legge, director of the Office of Municipal Audit and Inspection, describing the problem with interviewing persons not under oath. "You can get them to sign a statement - and people shouldn't take that too lightly - but the perjury penalty is not there."
Both Legge's probe and the preliminary findings by D.C. auditor Matthew S. Watson have reached stalemates in some instances with one person saying one thing on a crucial issue and another person saying something else.
"To say for sure, (that someone) has violated these things there has to be a determination of who's telling the truth," Legge said. "I don't have any means to do that. I haven't found any means to do it."
D.C. auditor Watson, whose office is to the City Council what Legge's office is to the mayor, said it is unrealistic to expect his reports to flatly conclude if city regulations were broken.
"I think that's probably asking too much," Watson said. "The best thing (coming from our investigation) is that at all sides of it will be reported and people will have to make their own determination. The whole thing is going to turn on the credibility you give to various witnesses."
The nature of the allegations themselves - that Yeldell improperly used his position to place friends and relatives as well as political allies of Mayor Walter E. Washington on the city payroll - is difficult to prove, acccording to both auditors.
City regulations clearly spell out which relatives are covered by the so-called nepotism law, but the only way to find wrongdoing on the basis of friendship to show that a person either lacks the qualifications for the job or was hired in disregard for the city's merit personnel system.
The D.C. government is one of the biggest employers in the city and many families have several members employed by it. Trying to prove an improper hiring, one investigator concluded privately, working in "one big grey area."
"The most we can do is say that we see a pattern where we think some influence is being exerted." Watson said.
The different investigating units have differing game plans, which may account in part for variations in their findings.
Legge, for example, made his best case of alleged nepotism against Yeldell by accusing him of giving a first cousin, Frederick B. Senior, an unfair boost by introducing Senior to a Yeldell subordinate who later hired Senior. That probably was a violation of the city's nepotism and hiring law, Legge concluded.
Watson looked at many of the same personnel files on Senior and in his draft report mentioned no irregularities in the hiring. Watson said he was not looking at the relations of employees to employers, only at merit system violation. And secondly, Watson did not interview the one witness on whom Legge's case of improper action by Yeldell rests.
Examining individual hiring to determine if specific personnel regulations were biolated is a new ball game for both Watson and Legge, the two auditors acknowledged although neither feels his staff is inadequate for the task.
Watson's two-year old office has been doing things like examining the city's system for publication of the D.C Register and scrutinzing the mayor's annual budget proposal for the council.
Legge's 30-person staff has been monitoring the city's intake of revenue in the department of motor vehicles and auditing the operations of the D.C. Stadium and Armony Board.
"I don't believe I've done any investigations of his of this so-called nepotism and cronyism before," said Legge, who has worked for D.C. government for 22 years. "It's probably a little more difficult in this kind of situation where you have a lot of people involved. It's hard to pin down exactly where things go wrong."