Flanked by his wife and children and warmly applauded by his staff, Joseph P. Yeldell symbolically returned yesterday as director of the D.C. Department of Human Resources with the same ceremony and charismatic style that characterized his six controversial years as head of the massive city agency.
Last Dec. 3, Mayor Walter E. Washington suspended Yeldell amidst published allegations of nepotism and cronyism in DHR hiring, leasing and contracting abuses and conflict of interest in Yeldell's public dealings with millionaire developer and parking magnate Dominic F. Antonelli Jr.
Yesterday, 124 days and eight inconclusive reports later, Yeldell was temporarily back on the job - until Thursday, when he becomes a general assistant to the mayor. At a press conference in his old DHR office, Yeldell was as combative as ever, proclaiming that all the allegations against him had proved goundless and blaming the news media for virtually driving him out of office.
"I do not view my reinstatemet as director of DHR as a personal victory. I have merely regained that which I already had - my personal and professional dignity," Yeldell said. "There is a victory here, however, and it has been won by the people of this city."
"I think it's totally wrong for anyone in government to assume that simply because the media - by that I particularly mean The (Washington) Post and The (Washington) Star - have made a determination that this official is no longer effective in his job, that that will indeed result in personnel changes," Yeldell said.
Yeldell's return to head the city's largest agency will be short-lived. On Thursday, after only two full days on the job, Yeldell will become the No. 3 man in Mayor Washington's administration when he moves to a position as general assistant to the mayor with a "high priority" assignment.
Both the mayor and Yeldell have agreed that Yeldell's permanent return to the agency might embroil it in continuing controversy. "I think I could do the job," Yeldell said. "But the other answer that must be advanced is that the media is not going to let me do the job."
Since his 120-day suspension began Dec. 3, Yeldell has been "detailed" as chairman of the city's Board of Appeals and Review. The detail ended Monday. At that point, the mayor had to decide either to extend the detail, reinstate Yeldell or begin disciplinary proceedings against him. Sources close to the city's chief executive described it as a "no-win" situation for Mayor Washington.
Taking Yeldell under his wing as a general assistant was bound to bring controversy and possibly irreversible political damage, the sources said. But Yeldell was a long-time confidant of the mayor and very popular among some of the mayor's strongest supporters, the sources added, an the evidence against Yeldell was inconclusive at best, which ruled out disciplinary proceedings.
Yesterday's formal acceptance by Yeldell of a job offer made by the mayor Monday was expected by city officials to end nearly five months of controversy and uncertainty over whether Yeldell would remain in city government.As late as 12:30 a.m. yesterday, however, it was uncertain whether Yeldell would agree to the mayor's plan, according to sources close to the DHR director.
Yeldell had refused an invitation to appear at a press conference with the mayor Monday, the sources said. After the mayor's announcement, which was couched in language implicitly aimed at placating Yeldell, the DHR head was still dissatisfied, the sources said.
Yeldell wanted his new job spelled out more specifically, the sources said, and had hoped the mayor would have been more forceful in asserting that Yeldell was getting the No. 3 spot.
According to these sources, Yeldell strongly considered not accepting the mayor's offer and instead taking a job outside city government. The 44-year-old DHR head also considered running for City Council in a July 19 special election to fill the vacancy created by the death of Julius Hobson last month.
Yeldell finally decided, the sources said, to accept the mayor's offer. "Resignation would merely play into the hands of those who have sought to impugn my integrity and that of this government," Yeldell said yesterday. "I have always been, I am now and I will always be my own man. The job offered by the mayor contemplates broad responsibilities with direct access to the mayor."
Yeldell said yesterday he had fully cooperated with all of those who investigated the allegations, including the D.C. auditor, city administrator julian Dugas (who never questioned Yeldell) and municipal auditor David Legge. None of these investigators on Yeldell's part. On that basis, Yeldell said yesterday, he considers himself vindicated.
However, the U.S. Attorney's Office here is still conducting an investigation of possible conflict of interest in the relations between Yeldell and Antonelli. They have yet to interview either one.
The federal prosecutors are focusing their probe on a $33,000 personal loan made to Yeldell by a friend of Antonelli's at about the same time that DHR signed a 20-year, $5.6 million lease with Antonelli on an $800,000 building at 60 Florida Ave. N.E.
Yeldell said yesterday that the U.S. Attorney's Office had "clearly" been "prodded into this situation by what they read in the newspapers." He said he expects the federal prosecutors to drop their case against him.
At one point during the controversy, Yeldell's lawyers had envisioned a possible libel suit against the news media. Yeldell said yesterday that a decision on such a suit has not yet been made.
Throuhgout the controversy, Yeldell was privately critical of the mayor's handling of the situation, claiming he was being treated as guilty until proven innocent. Yesterday, however, his criticism of his boss was minimal. "I think it could have been handled entirely differently. It's inappropriate that it was not," Yeldell said. "But as I said . . . that's behind me."
In Yeldell's new position, he will fall behind the mayor and city administrator Dugas in the official city pecking order.
Except for some tense moments during the past several months, Yeldell and the mayor have retained their close political relationship. During the recent two-day takeover of three buildings by 12 armed Hanafi Muslims, for example, Yeldell was frequently at the mayor's side.
One member of the mayor's inner circle with whom Yeldell is expected to have some friction is Corporation Counsel John R. Risher Jr. Risher, according to knowledgeable sources was the strongest opponent of Yeldell's return.
Yeldell's deputy, Albert P. Russo, will become acting head of DHR after Yeldell's departure. Russo served as acting director throughout Yeldell's 120-day detail.