District Health Director Gregg A. Pane defended his agency yesterday, saying that since he took over, he has made great improvements in how the department handles money and provides help to city residents.
The agency is "far different than it was in the past," said Pane, testifying before the D.C. Council Committee on Health. "The Department of Health has made great strides within the last year and a half."
Committee Chairman David A. Catania (I-At Large) scheduled the session to look into problems in District contracting and spending, including $2.1 million spent by the Maternal and Child Health Administration, which is part of Pane's department. That money was spent through a contract intended to set up a phone-answering system and computer databases, but it mostly went to unrelated consultants and conference fees, records show.
Pane said that he would not defend the contract but that the spending, which took place from 2000 to 2003, was "old, old news." He said the contract is under investigation.
The contract was described in a Washington Post series that ran this week, detailing contracting and spending violations by District officials.
Yesterday, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform, requested city contracting and payment records, citing the newspaper accounts. Davis asked for a list of every no-bid contract issued by the city since 2000, as well as copies of contracts named in the stories.
"In light of these press allegations, it is essential that the Committee conduct an assessment" of District contracting and spending, Davis wrote in letters to Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi. Davis asked that the records be delivered within two weeks.
"The District welcomes the scrutiny, since we believe that most procurement in the city is handled in an efficient and cost-effective manner," said Vincent Morris, spokesman for Williams. "We look forward to an outside review, which will certainly counter the misleading picture painted by the Washington Post."
Catania disagreed with Pane that the contracting problems at the Health Department had been solved. He cited a lease that in 18 months cost the city as much in rent as the building is worth. And he said the city is getting nothing from a consulting contract that cost $640,000.
Catania complained about "a round robin of responsibility that doesn't stop with anyone" and said District employees pass the blame among the contracting and finance departments and the agencies running the programs.
The District has a "cultural problem that permits continued mediocrity in this government and ripping off taxpayers," Catania complained.
Pane and his subordinates promised to look into the leases and the $640,000 contract, and said employees were receiving more training to make sure the city gets value for the money it spends.