In the 1980s, its plumbing inspectors took cash and gifts from contractors. In the 1990s, its new Laurel headquarters, filled with expensive sculpture, opened $4 million over budget. In 2002, a former employee pleaded guilty to paying a consultant more than $200,000 in bogus fees.
The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, one of the 10 largest water and sewer utilities in the country, has had more than its share of problems over the years. But recent events seem to have opened a new chapter of turmoil at the agency, which serves 1.6 million customers in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
The board has canceled two of its last three meetings. Routine business is facing delay because contracts have been tabled. The general manager, accused by some board members of mismanaging agency finances and labor relations, survived an attempt to fire him five months ago but has been in limbo ever since, negotiating a buyout of his contract.
Who's responsible? Beyond Griffin and the board are two county executives, Douglas M. Duncan (D) of Montgomery and Jack B. Johnson (D) of Prince George's, each of whom appoints three members to oversee the bi-county agency.
Each executive has taken a markedly different approach to WSSC. Duncan, a likely gubernatorial candidate in 2006, has been hands-off, trying to keep his distance from the turmoil, according to some elected officials in Montgomery.
Johnson has pushed hard to increase his influence at the agency since taking office in late 2002. During his first General Assembly session in 2003, he lobbied for a bill that would have allowed him to fire the incumbent Prince George's appointees to the WSSC. The attempt failed, but he eventually replaced two of the three Prince George's commissioners when their terms expired.
With its $659 million annual budget, WSSC is an important source of business for minority contractors in Prince George's, many of whom supported Johnson's campaign.
"When you control an employer like that, you have a place to put your friends," said Manuel Geraldo, one of the Prince George's commissioners replaced by Johnson when his four-year term ended in January.
One of those friends was Prem P. Agarwal, a supporter and campaign contributor, whom Johnson named to the WSSC board in July 2003. Agarwal also owns G.E. Frisco, an Upper Marlboro lumber and building supply business. In March, The Washington Post reported that G.E. Frisco had been paid $1.46 million as an agency subcontractor during Agarwal's first nine months as a commissioner. State ethics laws prohibit board members from doing business with the agency.
Johnson also has been heavily involved in the effort to remove Griffin, who as general manager is responsible for WSSC's day-to-day operations. W. Gregory Wims, a former Duncan-appointed commissioner, has charged that Griffin was responsible for overspending that resulted in a $7 million deficit in fiscal 2004. Wims and some other board members say that Griffin has awarded raises and promotions on the basis of race, and that contracts have not been properly prepared or submitted to commissioners in a timely manner.
Wims, who has since left the board, joined Agarwal, Joyce Starks, Johnson's other appointment to the board, and one other member in voting to fire Griffin in February. Agency lawyers reversed the dismissal on procedural grounds.
Through a spokesman, Griffin said that as a condition of continuing negotiations with the WSSC board on a buyout of his contract, which expires in late 2005, he has agreed not to discuss the agency's problems publicly. An internal audit prepared by WSSC last month dismisses the allegations.
In early 2003, Johnson formed a WSSC "transition team" that included Stan Udhiri, president of REI/Drayco, a WSSC contractor, and Shaaron W. Phillips and Sheldon L. Edwards, two officials in WSSC's Small, Local and Minority Business Enterprise Office. Udhiri and his family have contributed $12,500 to Johnson's campaign fund in the past three years.
The WSSC group was among several departmental and agency teams Johnson formed to advise him on issues related to the transition from his predecessor, Wayne K. Curry (D). In June 2003, Phillips and Edwards were among 11 employees who filed racial discrimination charges against the utility with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The cases have all been dismissed in recent weeks by the EEOC.
Last month, Johnson began lobbying for Henry T. Arrington, his former campaign chairman, to become interim general manager, replacing Griffin. Arrington, a former WSSC employee, also served on the commission for nine years.
Council members from Prince George's and Montgomery oppose such a move.
Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville), vice chairman of the Prince George's County Council, said he is against naming anyone on an interim basis. "This whole process is not good where we are," Dean said. "John is working under a situation where he doesn't know how long he will be there, and I think it's a disservice to him and to all of WSSC."
Some in the agency say that the plan to insert Arrington was devised before Johnson became county executive.
One WSSC staff member, who insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisals, said Joseph R. Jackson Jr., a former WSSC employee who held a fundraiser for Johnson at his Charles County home in 2001, hinted of Johnson's plans during a conversation the two had in 2000.
"I was told you better get on board because Jack Johnson is going to be county executive and Hank Arrington is going to be running this place," said the employee. Jackson pleaded guilty this year to federal wire fraud charges in connection with WSSC contracts he steered to computer consultant Arvind K. Agarwal. Agarwal (no relation to Prem P. Agarwal) inflated the charges for the work he was doing and then paid a portion back to Jackson.
Johnson declined to be interviewed for this article.
"I don't have anything to say about WSSC," he said.
Duncan disputed accounts that Johnson is attempting to exert inappropriate influence over the agency. He said he hasn't noticed differences in the ways in which Johnson and Curry have approached WSSC.
"I haven't seen any indication of people with political motives trying to do anything," said Duncan, who is working to expand his base of support in Democrat-rich Prince George's in preparation for 2006.
"The issue with Doug is he doesn't want" to alienate Johnson, said Montgomery County Council member Michael L. Subin (D-At Large).
Another constituency important to Duncan is organized labor. County union leaders, who have been trying to organize WSSC employees since 2001, have also called for the dismissal of Griffin, who has resisted the union campaign. When Duncan spoke out against Griffin's abortive firing earlier this year, labor and civil rights leaders attacked him for getting involved.
"He is walking a tightrope here," said Gino Renne, president of the Municipal and County Government Employees Organization, an 8,000-member union in Montgomery. "In hindsight, he realizes that he probably should have just watched the process. My sense is that he doesn't want to be out front on that again. There is high-stakes politics being played here."
Critics of the agency say a stronger hand is needed to keep politics out of agency operations.
"You expect a little bit of politics at an agency like this, but at some point someone has to say, 'Stop playing politics with this agency,' " said Roberto Arguero, chairman of WSSC's citizen advisory board. "Do you have to wait until you get to the point where you're endangering public health before someone puts an end to it?"
Duncan said his main concern is that the commissioners finalize a settlement with Griffin. Aside from that, he said, there are no significant problems with the commissioners or the agency.
"WSSC is providing good water and sewage service right now," he said. "The turmoil right now is who is the leader. Once we solve that, things will settle."