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Chair of board who ousted D.C. government watchdog: Decision wasn’t political

Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and other D.C. Council members questioned ethics board chair Tameka Collier, who didn’t give a reason for the director’s ouster. (Jahi Chikwendiu)

The chair of the D.C. ethics board that ousted a well-regarded government watchdog denied that the decision was politically motivated and suggested that the employee overstepped her bounds in enforcing open-meetings laws.

Board of Ethics and Government Accountability Chair Tameka Collier decried what she called “rampant misinformation” and “irresponsible speculation” in her first public comments about the move during a Thursday oversight hearing before the D.C. Council.

The board, made up of appointees of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), decided not to reappoint D.C. Office of Open Government Director Traci Hughes to a second term during a closed meeting last week. But it offered no public explanation and did not respond to repeated request for comments.

Hughes’s ouster sparked outrage from good-government advocates and lawmakers who suspected her removal was retribution for finding repeated violations of transparency laws by the Bowser administration.

Hughes, who became the first person to hold the open-government post in 2013, said this week that she faced pressure to pull punches when cracking down on D.C. agencies.

Collier said she was “dismayed” by characterizations that she and her fellow board members were acting on behalf of the mayor.

“We take our independent status very seriously and guard it jealously,” Collier said. “I want to assure you, the council and the residents of the district that the board’s decision was not a result of any political pressure.”

Collier repeatedly said she couldn’t explain why the board didn’t reappoint Hughes because of “ongoing personnel” matters. But at various points of the hearing, Collier took swipes at Hughes for not being more communicative with the board and said that the relationship between her board and the office was “untenable.”

“It is the board prerogative — indeed, our duty — to choose the director of (the office of open government) who we believe can best affectuate the mission of the office,” Collier said.

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The hearing was made awkward by the fact that Hughes, whose term expires in April, was sitting two chairs away from Collier at the same table.

In her testimony, Hughes defended her tenure, said Collier was vague in warning that she was on thin ice in December and suggested that she was “perhaps too effective” at making sure the public had access to government material.

Hughes acknowledged that she didn’t have evidence that her ouster was politically motivated, but noted that she lost her job after tangling with government agencies.

“We’ve all been around District government for a while, and we know when something walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, talks like a duck, it’s most likely a duck,” she said.

Most recently, Hughes found the board of the United Medical Center, the District’s only public hospital, violated open-meetings law when it made a decision in private to close the hospital’s obstetrics unit. She also filed a lawsuit against the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Caribbean Community Affairs for failing to advise and record meetings.

In October 2017, Hughes found extensive violations of the open-meetings law by the D.C. Commission on Selection and Tenure of Administrative Law Judges. Collier said the board took note of criticisms of how Hughes handled that situation, including a letter from a judge on that board who accused her of overstepping her bounds.

Under questioning from council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who led the oversight hearing, Collier said the decision against reappointing Hughes wasn’t in response to a specific decision, did not come from pressure from an agency, and was not discussed in advance with the mayor or one of her staff members.

Collier suggested that the board could still terminate Hughes or place her on leave before her term is up in April, even after deciding against reappointment. After the hearing, Hughes said it was “too early” to say whether she would challenge her ouster.

Council members needled Collier for not giving a reason for the shake-up.

“Without any sort of public statements from you and [the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability], our residents really have no other information to go on and many will assume the worst, that this was a political decision made,” said council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large). “This just doesn’t look good.”

Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) noted that everyone in the District seemed to have “sterling plaudits” for Hughes, except for the government ethics board.

A host of good-government activists praised Hughes’ tenure for shining a spotlight on secret corners of D.C. government.

“She did astonishing work, and now she’s out. There’s got to be a connection,” said Fritz Mulhauser, a board member of the D.C. Open Government Coalition. “It seems there’s a price to pay for calling out boards and commissions.”

Hughes likened all the praise to winning the popular vote but losing the electoral college: Despite the support, she’s still out of a job.