Congressional and city officials called yesterday for investigations into how the District spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually in violation of laws and policies designed to avoid waste and fraud.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform, said he will ask the Government Accountability Office and his committee to look into the city's spending patterns. The violations could set back efforts to give the District more independence from Congress, Davis said in a statement.
"D.C. seems to be returning to the kind of practices that caused so much concern a decade ago," said Davis spokesman David Marin.
In stories published Sunday and yesterday, The Washington Post detailed repeated violations by city officials, including spending taxpayer money without contracts through "direct vouchers" and allowing favored contractors to bid on D.C. business without competition.
"News of rampant direct voucher payments and other costly shortcuts are troublesome not only because they threaten the District's fiscal resurgence," Marin said, "but also because they undermine the reemerging public trust in District governance."
D.C. Council members said city workers should be held responsible for violating the law.
"The first thing I did this morning was to contact the D.C. auditor so there can be an independent study and review and recommendations on contracting practices, and if necessary, someone be fired or prosecuted," said Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D). Cropp said District taxpayers have to be sure that they are getting value for every dollar the city spends and that businesses have a fair chance to compete for contracts. "It was just disgusting," Cropp said of spending detailed in the newspaper stories.
The articles, for example, described one company that has received 146 no-bid contracts worth a total of $13 million since 2003.
Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-At Large) said his Government Operations Committee will hold hearings concerning no-competition contracts and other contracts that were granted when just one company bid on the work. He said he will continue to push legislation requiring that every contract be publicly advertised to attract bids. He also complained about companies receiving contracts for more than $1 million without the required council approval.
"There's a culture in this government that needs to be addressed," said Orange, who, like Cropp, is running for mayor.
Vince Morris, spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), said the articles blew issues out of proportion.
"Fortunately, many of the examples cited in the Washington Post stories are old news and we're hopeful that we can continue to improve contracting in the future," Morris said in an e-mail. "Since his days as chief financial officer, Mayor Williams has strived to improve the District's procurement process. He has always asked employees to uphold the highest standards and demanded accountability with every step. It's important that people remember that, while unfortunate, the actions of a few individuals do not tarnish the overall progress the city is making."
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees District spending, said in a statement that the city has made "impressive progress" in managing its money but that "there is clearly a need for more oversight of the District's contracting practices."
Brownback and Davis said they have special responsibility because some of the spending involved federal funds. In one case, for example, the city paid a businessman nearly $5.4 million over seven years, despite warnings of his financial problems. Some of those funds were grants from the federal departments of Labor and Housing and Urban Development.
Brownback said he will work with Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, who has independent authority from Congress over every dollar spent by the District. In response to the Post's findings, Gandhi's office instituted a new system last month to monitor all direct voucher spending in an attempt to eliminate it. Gandhi said that District contracting has such "profound" problems that he has had no choice but to approve payments without proper contracts.
Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) complained that Gandhi's independence "is a check and balance for lousy performance by the executive branch." If Gandhi's employees pay bills even when the law was broken, she said, "then what good are they? That check and balance is not working."