An internal audit of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission has cleared General Manager John R. Griffin of all allegations of impropriety that board members cited as the reasons for his attempted firing five months ago.
The regional water and sewer utility, which serves 1.6 million customers in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, has been in turmoil since the six-member board tried to oust Griffin and his deputy, P. Michael Errico, by a 4 to 2 vote on Feb. 18. The firing was overturned on a technicality, and the board has since been negotiating a buyout of Griffin's and Errico's contracts. Griffin's runs through October 2005.
W. Gregory Wims, a commissioner at the time, cited a litany of allegations against the general manager when the board voted to fire Griffin: awarding unauthorized bonuses to staff members; ordering a $50,000 SUV for Errico; hiring diversity consultants without the board's knowledge; and wasting money on steak and lobster dinners.
The June 23 audit found no evidence of wrongdoing on any of those allegations.
"There were no facts to justify the action that the commissioners took in February," said Montgomery County Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), chairman of the council committee that oversees WSSC. "There did not seem to be a search for truth."
Griffin asked the board to conduct an external audit to clear his name, but the commissioners declined. He then directed the agency's internal audit manager, Haskell Arnold, to investigate Wims's allegations.
Although Arnold reports to both Griffin and the board, only the commissioners can fire him, according to agency spokeswoman Elizabeth Kalinowski.
None of the board members has read the audit, according to Commissioner Jinhee Kim Wilde, a Griffin supporter. "They did not want to see it," she said. "The majority of the commissioners said, 'We didn't authorize this. Griffin cannot authorize an audit of himself.' "
Commissioner Prem P. Agarwal, who voted to oust Griffin, said he didn't think it was important to review the report. "But I will definitely look at it when I get the chance," he said.
The four other commissioners did not respond to calls for comment.
Chairman Joyce Starks and Vice Chairman Gerald G. Roper, who also supported Griffin's dismissal, were incensed when they heard about the internal audit, according to an agency employee who saw their reaction and spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retribution by the board.
"They went berserk and threatened to fire the auditors," said the employee. "They accused Haskell of undermining them by releasing this information."
Arnold could not be reached to comment. Through a spokesman, Griffin said the board has asked him not to discuss the agency's problems publicly as a condition of negotiations to buy out his contract.
The 43-page audit dismisses seven public allegations made by Wims to explain the board's vote to fire Griffin.
Wims, reached on his cell phone in Arizona, said he had little confidence in any internal audit.
"I am calling, as a ratepayer, for a full and open independent audit," he said. "Once this is done, all parties concerned will be able to agree with the results." He would not comment on the June 23 report's findings or his initial allegations.
In February, Wims said the board turned against Griffin after discovering only a two-week supply of a chemical needed to provide clean drinking water for 1 million people. "That was the straw that broke the camel's back," he said then.
But the audit concluded that Griffin did nothing wrong. "The General Manager and WSSC procurement personnel acted in accordance with WSSC procurement policies and procedures," the investigation found.
The report also notes documents that directly contradict Wims's claims. Although Wims said he was not informed about the chemical situation until Feb. 18, the audit includes a document that says a courier delivered briefing papers on the matter a week earlier.
Wims accused Griffin of improperly spending money on diversity consultants, but the audit concluded that he had not, citing a Nov. 19, 2003, meeting during which the commissioners -- including Wims -- authorized the expenditure.
The audit also found no evidence of Wims's claims that Griffin improperly bought a $50,000 SUV for Errico, awarded bonuses to employees in a discriminatory way, or paid premiums for employees to have lobster and steak dinners at cultural sensitivity sessions.
"John and Mike did nothing wrong," Wilde said. "But I don't think this audit is going to help them retain their positions. What they need right now is a graceful exit."
The board was supposed to discuss a settlement agreement with Griffin and Errico on Thursday, but it adjourned the session after less than five minutes because commissioners could not agree on an agenda.
An emergency board meeting to discuss the negotiations is scheduled for tomorrow.