Mayor Walter E. Washington and four Department of Human Resources officials - including suspended director Joseph P. Yeldell - were found in contempt of court yesterday for failing to process welfare applications on time as ordered two years ago.
U.S. District Court Judge Aubrey E. Robinson imposed no immediate penalties against the city officials. Instead, he ordered them to set a deadline to have the current backlog of 900 pending welfare applications processed.
Robinson warned that failure to clean up the backlog in a timely and proper fashion "will put them (officials) in D.C. jail, and I don't mean just the bosses" of DHR.
Robinson said DHR is in violation because it has "too much dead weight - too many people who believe they can do as they please and still collect a salary." Such employees should be fired, he suggested.
"I may have to look like the ogre, but I am going to see that every one of these applicants gets what they are entitled to," Robinson stormed.
Although Mayor Washington has been named as a defendant in numerous suits against the District in the past, it is unusual for a judge to hold him in contempt. U.S. District Court Judge Joseph C. Waddy held the mayor and several DHR and school officials in contempt in 1975 for failure to educate handicapped children adequately.
D.C. Corporation Counsel John R. Risher said he was not surprised that Robinson included the mayor yesterday because DHR currently has no permanent director, leaving the mayor as the highest official responsible for DHR. Albert P. Russo, also held in contempt yesterday, has been acting DHR director since Yeldell was suspended last December for alleged abuses in hiring, leasing and contracting practices.
Yeldell's attorney, Gary R. Myers, argued before Judge Robinson to have Yeldell exempted from the contempt ruling. Yeldell has no authority to comply with the contempt order as civil contempt law require, Myers said, and cannot purge himself of the contempt charge because of his suspended status.
"As far as Mr. Yeldell is concerned he is out of it for the moment," Robinson said. "But whether he ever gets back into it, I have no way of knowing. But if he comes back, he's in the soup again.
"Each of the defendants is in contempt," the judge said after a 90-minute courtroom conference that followed three days of hearings on the contempt motion last month.
Myers said he interpreted the judge's statement that Yeldell is "out of it" as exempting him from the ruling. Robinson said through his law clerk, however, that the action "embraced Yeldell." Myers and his partner, Curtis Smothers, said they sought a written order from Robinson late yesterday in order to lodge an appeal, but Robinson denied it.
"Our position is that there is simply no order of the court finding Yeldell in contempt," Smothers said in a telephone interview.
Bertrell Hallum, DHR administrator of payments assistance, was also named in the contemp motion. NLSP lawyers said Hallum carried out Yeldell's directive to conduct various welfare review projects rather than processing applications.
Oliver Downs, manager of DHR's Congress Heights Services Center, was the fourth DHR official found in contempt. He was accused of failing to assure applicants the right to fill out applications.
Robinson ruled that DHR not only failed to meet the federally mandated limit of 45 days to process welfare applications but also did not notify applicants of their right to a timely decision and, in some cases, denied them the right to fill out applications.
Neighborhood Legal Service Program lawyers who filed the 1974 welfare suit and the November contempt motion, charged that DHR officials deliberately disobeyed the court order.
"It was intentional, all right, and deliberate," Robinson said yesterday. He said officials chose to eliminate payment errors in existing welfare rolls in response to congressional criticism, while neglecting the incoming applications.
"Most of the difficulty was self-inflicted," Robinson said. He charged DHR officials with failing to seek sufficient funding from "officials responsible for the purse strings" in order to process applications on time.
Assistant Corporation Counsel Mellie H. Nelson presented Robinson with DHR's plan for clearing up the backlog. The plan includes 109 specially assigned workers - 35 to clear up the backlog of 900 pending cases and 74 to time.
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NLSP lawyers asked Robinson in court papers to jail the five defendants indefinitely if any backlog remains after April 29. City lawyers argued that such a sentence would leave no one to administer welfare.
NLSP lawyers also asked for $100 in damages for each applicant who was not processed on time but later found to be eligible. Such payments would unfairly penalize taxpayers, Nelson protested.
"I don't buy that," Robinson responded. "It's a matter of seeing that this government does what it's supposed to do. The only way you can do it is to get in its pocket." Robinson said he will consider the damages proposal if the backlog continues.
Robinson gave city officials until the middle of next week to set the deadline for eliminating the backlog of 900 cases.