Having spent a fair amount of time observing D.C. government officials blind the public with their footwork as they dance around messy situations, I confess to being transfixed by neighboring Maryland's response to the major scandal in its boot camp program for juveniles. Truth be told, as a District resident, I'm downright envious. We should be so lucky.
Keep reading and you'll see why.
Last week, the Baltimore Sun detailed in a hard hitting four-part series how guards had struck, punched and thrown shackled youths to the ground as a part of the camp's regular regimen. Sun readers saw photos of injured kids with split lips. The paper also informed the public that the boot camp program, touted most notably by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as a good way of helping misguided offenders go straight, did little for the youths once they were released.
The series produced outrage, both from the public and state officials. Gov. Parris Glendening, in a predictable response, appointed a task force to conduct an investigation.
But then Maryland did something that would be undreamed of, if not considered downright freakish in the District: The state's investigation took only a week.
Not stopping there, the Maryland response reached a level not within the imagination of most District residents. The governor went beyond publicly fuming, agonizing and breathing threats. He actually did something.
The affected boot camps had already been temporarily shut down after the story broke. But once the report confirming that juveniles had been beaten and abused was in the governor's hands, there were no long hand-wringing sessions, followed by highly publicized consultations with a laundry list of self-important political bigwigs--which is a mandatory minuet for a D.C. leader about to do something of some consequence.
Glendening accepted responsibility for the abuses, declared, "Our trust, but more important the trust of the people of Maryland, has been violated," and cleaned house.
He sought and received the resignations of the secretary of juvenile justice, the department's assistant secretary and the superintendent and assistant superintendent of the facilities. When the deputy secretary refused to go, Glendening fired him.
The time span from the end of the Sun series to the state probe and ouster of the responsible officials: less than one week.
Keep that in mind as you observe the District's investigation into city-funded group homes for the mentally retarded following The Post's Dec. 5 story on neglect and deaths of group home residents since 1993.
A shocked and indignant Mayor Anthony Williams promised a full investigation and a major personnel shakeup. That was nearly two weeks ago.
District leaders can fulminate up a storm about injustices induced or tolerated by city workers. But do they really mean it?
Let's go back to Aug. 12, 1997.
That's when Willis Curry, 62, driving an overloaded dump truck that had been cited by Maryland State Police for at least 274 violations of 24 federal truck-safety standards and was once ordered off the road, ran a red light and overturned on a car at Military Road and Nevada Avenue NW, killing the driver, 17-year-old Benjamin Cooper.
Curry, now serving 10 to 30 years in jail, should not have been behind the wheel that day. It turned out he had compiled a record of at least 32 traffic violations from four states in the nine years preceding the August crash.
His D.C. license should have been yanked long ago. But when the District did come across enough information to revoke his permit, he was, instead, reissued a restricted license on Aug. 4, 1997, so he could keep working. Curry was driving in violation of the terms of a restricted license the city had issued him when he crashed into Cooper's car.
"Poor judgment," declared District officials, as disciplinary action was announced against five key employees. Two of them, top officials, would be replaced, we were told. Three others would be suspended. Declared then-D.C. Public Works Director Cellerino Bernardino, "A change had to occur in the management culture" of the two bureaus responsible for turning Curry loose behind the wheel.
What really happened to the five Department of Motor Vehicles workers deemed responsible for the chain of events that helped get Curry out on Military Road that fateful afternoon? Let's look at the size of their paychecks when the crash occurred, at the disciplinary action taken and at what they are pulling down now:
* Worker 1 was making $52,377. She received a letter of reprimand, and now makes $57,009--nearly $5,000 more.
* Worker 2 was making $66,594. She was removed from her position and got a letter of reprimand. She's appealing the action. She now draws $74,980--$8,000 more;
* Worker 3 was making $45,357. He received 15 days' suspension and is also appealing. He now makes $51,763--$6,000 more.
* Worker 4 was making $37,792, no action taken. She retired under an early-out option.
* Worker 5 was making $52,377. He received a letter of reprimand. He's appealing, too. Meanwhile, life's been good. He now makes $68,395--$16,000 more.
The above rundown was obtained from Ward 3 council member Kathy Patterson, who, to her credit, has not let the city get away with high-sounding accountability rhetoric unmatched by real action.
Patterson's also not easily taken in by the bureaucratic dance called the "D.C. Dodge." Unfortunately, too many folks in this city are.
You've seen the dance; you just didn't know its name. The steps are familiar: When a bad news story hits an agency, watch as the big boss reels back with alarm, boogaloos with outrage, twists with anger while threatening pink slips, does the slide into a reform number, then hustles behind closed doors, where she or he hunkers down until the whole thing blows over or until another scandal comes along to push the problem off the front pages.
Declared Mayor Williams the week the group homes scandal broke: D.C. government employees "from top to bottom . . . will be held accountable."
Yeah, right, Mr. Mayor. In the meantime, give Parris Glendening a call.