With the sweet lure of sparkling champagne and liberal, "off-the-books" leave policy for time to enjoy it, the often-dispirited D.C. Office of Human Rights has bubbled to life and is closing more discrimination cases than ever before.
The winemaster is OHR director Anita B. Shelton, who started passing out the champagne in July after federal officials warned that her agency stood to lose $100,000 in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission funds because of its poor closure record.
Several sources in the agency, which investigates violations of the District's antidiscrimination laws, said Shelton called a staff meeting in June and first threatened "to fire us collectively" before deciding to cajole rather than can the 18 investigators.
Cases closed jumped from 46 in June to 62 in July after the incentive program was begun. That far exceeded some recent months when the agency reported as few as 15 case completions to the EEOC, which has a contract with the city to investigate discrimination cases.
Shelton said in an interview that she bought the champagne, at least six bottles as of yesterday, with her own money, but she said she had no knowledge of a plan allowing her 18-member staff of investigators to take unrecorded time off. "I don't know anything about time off," she said.
However, several sources within the rights office, along with internal memos, confirmed that the investigators and clerical employes have taken from as little as a half-day to more than two weeks off in addition to regular leave and weekends.
"With regular leave time thrown in," one staff member said, "we've all been out of the office -- off -- when we're supposed to be closing cases."
Shown the memo listing the 18 days taken under the incentive program in July, Shelton said, "Anybody could type that up," and declined to say it was her agency's document.
Yesterday, Shelton rescinded permission for a reporter to talk with an agency supervisor who handles employe's time and attendance records. "I am the spokesperson for this office," Shelton said.
The unwritten policy, which some supervisors asked to get in writing but never received, allowed investigators to take time off every time the staff member turns in at least four completed cases.
"You turn them in on Monday and you're off the rest of the week -- with champagne," said one staff member who had been given a week off and a bottle of champagne.
Shelton defended the champagne giveaways.
"We can't give raises. I couldn't afford to take them to dinner," Shelton said. "I thought of lunch, but that's $6 and I'd have to eat and that's $12. sIf there's been any error it's been an error trying to meet community expectations," Shelton said.
Lee Perkins, cochairman of the D.C. Human Rights Commission, which holds hearings based on the rights office investigations, said yesterday she was not aware of the incentive program. "I just heard about the champagne today," she said.
Perkins said the program "Sounds bizarre to me because we are chronically behind."
Perkins said that Shelton has already been asked to appear before the commission's Sept. 18 meeting "to explain a mixed bag of crises, disasters and peculiarities in the department."
The agency has been plagued with feuds, a large backlog of current cases and complaints by several groups, including feminists and homosexuals, that the office is insensitive to their rights.
The agency has a staff of 50 people and an annual budget of $1.3 million in city funds. It also receives $257,200 in EEOC funds and $74,700 from the federal Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) program.