Since taking over as D.C. public health commissioner in January, Dr. Ernest Hardaway has used funds from his budget to purchase a $760 color console television set for his office, thousands of dollars in sophisticated communications equipment for the 1983 city-owned car he uses day and night, and a $8,950 remodeling and repainting of his Connecticut Avenue office suite.
He also wanted to buy hundreds of dollars in flashing red "Kojak" lights and sirens for his car, as well as a fireman's hat and a fireman's coat with "Public Health Commissioner" written across the back for going to three-alarm fires, according to city records and officials. Department of Human Services officials, who oversee the commission, said those requests have been vetoed, however.
Hardaway said in an interview that all of his purchases and requests are justified and necessary for him to do his job properly. "To the best of my ability, I'm walking right down the middle," he said.
His boss, DHS Acting Director David E. Rivers, sees it differently.
"A lot of this stuff in terms of firemen's coats and firemen's hats . . . and sirens and flashing lights, he just didn't need it," Rivers said. "The staff is calling around laughing at this. It makes us look bad."
Hardaway's expenditures for his own office come at a time when city health programs are being cut sharply lack of funds. For example, city clinics are being closed; the medical examiner's office is understaffed to a critical point; and, until their plight was made public, senior citizens were being told they would have to wait months for dentures. Staff members say that in this environment, the commissioner's purchases have been bad for morale throughout the commission.
The commissioner's office actually was painted twice this year, once by government workers and then again by a private contractor because Hardaway did not like the first job, DHS officials said.
"He was not satisfied with any parts of it the first paint job , the colors or anything else," said Frank Dollison, chief of the DHS facilities and maintenance operations division. So the painting and the remodeling Hardaway wanted were put out for bids and now have been completed at a cost of $8,950, Dollison said.
The remodeling included construction of a new wall that puts the commissioner's door out of view from his anteroom and creates a hallway to a side corridor.
"It the wall means I'll be able to use the office space in spite of whatever else occurs," he said in an interview in his eighth-floor, corner office that overlooks Northwest Washington and the Washington Hilton Hotel pool.
Sources who deal frequently with the commission contend the only function of the new wall is to allow Hardaway to leave his office by a back way without anyone in his anteroom knowing he has left.
"I have not avoided anybody since I have been here," Hardaway replied to that. "Who would I not want to see? . . . I don't try to duck them, but I don't like people coming in without an appointment."
Hardaway also does not like his staff to enter his office unannounced, so he keeps the door to his inner office locked most of the time he is there, he said.
"Different people have different concepts of what a closed door means," Hardaway explained. "People would interrupt my train of thought. Now they can knock on the door, and I won't respond."
At first "we would get people from the streets who would say 'I want to see him' and walk on in," Hardaway said. "Now the problem is with my own people."
The commissioner and his staff, as well as top DHS officials, cooperated fully with requests for documents and information. "There is nothing I know of that we have to hide," Hardaway said.
The commission this year received two new beige Chrysler K-cars, purchased by DHS as part of an overall plan to replace the department's fleet of decade-old cars that were always breaking down, said facilities management chief Dollison. One is now assigned to Hardaway on a 24-hour-a-day basis.
Several sources said Hardaway has assigned a commission clerk to be his driver during the day, although only the mayor is supposed to have an assigned driver. Hardaway denies that he uses a driver, but said sometimes he and a messenger will go together in his car if they both need to go somewhere at the same time. He said he drives the car himself when he commutes to work.
DHS director Rivers, after talking with one employe named by others as Hardaway's former driver, said his understanding is that the employe had a "dual role" as clerk and messenger who also would take the commissioner to meetings during the day. That is acceptable as long as the driving was done during working hours, he said.
Take-home cars are usually limited to the fire and police chiefs and employes who are on call at night to respond to city emergencies, said Thomas Downs, D.C. city administrator. He said most department heads do not have take-home cars, and said he did not know whether the practice was justified for Hardaway.
Commission records show that $13,124.45 in communications equipment was ordered this month for the two cars, at Hardaway's request. These include a mobile telephone, a radio that ties in to area hospitals and another two-channel radio that ties him into the mayor's command center. Hardaway also wears a beeper on which the mayor's command center can reach him.
The second equipped commission car is to be used eventually for deliveries and message-running at the commission, Hardaway said.
Hardaway said the equipment for his car, which he calls the "command car," is necessary for him to respond to disasters and other emergency situations. Asked what kinds of emergencies he has had to respond to during his eight-month tenure as commissioner, Hardaway cited an incident earlier this year in which a member of an eviction crew was shot and killed.
Hardaway said he was reached in his car by the mayor's command center by two-way radio. This enabled him to contact one of the commission's mental health clinics near the scene to make sure staff members locked the doors and did not allow the patients to wander out into the street.
He also said that sometimes people have called to report individuals locked in buildings that might be health commission buildings.
But DHS director Rivers said Hardaway needs only one radio in his car and added that if the second special radio has not been installed it will not be.
Rivers also said he only authorized $1,800 for the painting of Hardaway's office, to be done by city employes, and that he disapproved $974 worth of sirens and lights for the cars as well as the fireman's gear.
The commissioner's purchases, which go through DHS headquarters for approval, come out of the commissioner's budget, Dollison said.
Hardaway said he needs the fireman's gear because the commission is scheduled to take over the police and fire clinic, which sends a representative to the scene of serious fires. A commission official should start doing that now, at least for a while, he said.
The new $760 console television set, which has been approved but not yet received, is necessary for him to monitor news stories about health issues and interviews he has given, Hardaway said. "Channel 5 was up here Friday, and I never did see what they were saying," he said.
The reason he selected a console rather than a smaller model was because "I wanted one that didn't have a great deal of portability," he said, adding, "There weren't many styles available in the Sears catalog he had to select from . It was icky."
Hardaway defended his purchase requests and added that, if he could, he would replace the "tasteless" Mediterranean-style furniture in his conference room and the offices of other commission officials. But if he tried this, he predicted, DHS officials would "jam it right down my face."
His own office has a modern-style, white couch and matching chair he brought with him from his old office at the commission. But he is disturbed about the quality of furnishings in the rest of the commission headquarters.
"It's garbage, garbage, garbage, garbage," he said. "It's a perpetual embarrassment to me."