Veteran Ward 8 political activist Philip E. Pannell finally found work after 19 months in the unemployment wilderness. But after just three weeks on the job, Pannell resigned in anger, accusing his new employer -- a nonprofit organization that serves public charter schools -- of improperly forbidding him to campaign against Ward 7 council member Kevin P. Chavous.
The way Pannell tells it, he was hired in late May to serve as outreach coordinator for the PCS Center for Student Support Services, which informs D.C. residents about education options in the public school system.
Three days after he started work, the center's executive director, Eve Brooks, got a call from an aide to Chavous, who chairs the council's education committee.
The aide informed Brooks that Chavous was "really angry that I'd been hired," Pannell said. Pannell has long maintained an adversarial relationship with Chavous. Most recently, he helped engineer a takeover of the Ward 7 Democrats on behalf of Vincent Gray, Chavous's strongest challenger in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary.
Pannell said Brooks told him to be careful because "Chavous is a good friend of charter schools." Pannell said Brooks also threatened to fire him "if I find out you're doing anything for Vince Gray."
Chavous acknowledged that he had raised questions about Pannell's employment, but he said it had nothing to do with the council campaign. His concern centered around the group's decision to hire someone who was not a parent for the parent outreach position, he said.
"The politics is what it is," Chavous said. "Everybody knows he's supporting Vincent Gray. But that wasn't my focus. I just wanted to make sure, if it was a parent outreach position, that we maximized the opportunity to have a parent. I have not focused on what Phil is doing. He doesn't live in Ward 7 and has zero influence in Ward 7."
Rather than be fired, Pannell said, he quit.
"As much as I need income, I refuse to have someone do that to me," he said. "I got really sick of having this ax hanging over my head."
Brooks tells a different story. She said Pannell was told from the get-go that he could not work at the center and assist Gray's campaign at the same time.
"This is a very small community, and we really don't want our employees working on races that are sensitive," Brooks said. "We said that when we hired him: Certain races, if he wanted to do it, of course that was his privilege. But he'd have to take a leave of absence."
Brooks acknowledged that an aide to Chavous expressed displeasure over Pannell's hiring during a telephone call that she said focused mainly on other matters. But Brooks said she did not consider the phone call "heavy political pressure," nor did she act on it.
Pannell, Brooks said, "lost a job because I didn't want him working on a race. He quit, first of all, and I didn't make him quit, and I didn't force him to quit, and I didn't want him to quit."
Brooks said Pannell offered to resign three times during the three weeks he worked at the $40,000-a-year job. By the end, she said, he was "also calling me a racist, and I had very little choice but to accept" [his resignation].
$11.6 Million for Election
A few months before the 2004 presidential election, D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics officials received a big check to help ensure that the voting debacle that happened in Florida four years ago is not repeated in the nation's capital.
The District was selected by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to be the first municipality to receive an $11.6 million federal payment, according to the commission chairman and city officials. With roughly 354,700 registered voters in the District, that averages to about $32 per voter.
The money is a portion of the $2.3 billion set aside for the Help America Vote Act of 2002, a federal statute passed by Congress that guarantees disenfranchised voters a hearing. President Bush signed the law, which will provide funds for many states to upgrade their election practices and replace equipment such as Florida's much criticized punch-card system.
DeForest "Buster" Soaries Jr., chairman of the election assistance commission, along with three commission members, presented an oversize version of the check to the elections board last week. He said the funds are not just about buying equipment.
The board's director, Alice P. Miller, said the District would use the money to improve the election process by providing voter education, poll worker training and polling place accessibility for disabled voters.
D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), chairman of the council's committee on government operations, which oversees the elections board, joked that it's not every day the city gets a federal payment of $11.6 million. He said he hopes the District will be a model for other cities that need to improve the voting process.
"Clearly, what happened in the 2000 elections we don't want to ever happen again," Orange said, referring to the Florida ballot recount during the presidential election that had to be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court.