D.C. lawmakers voiced concern Monday about the unexplained removal of the District's government-transparency watchdog, who said that she faced pushback from other public officials — including in the office of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) — as she sought to enforce the city's laws on open meetings and records.
D.C. Office of Open Government Director Traci L. Hughes learned last week that the panel that oversees her office had voted unanimously not to reappoint her. The board voted in closed session, as is common in internal decisions affecting employees, and has not disclosed its reasons for seeking a replacement.
Hughes said Monday that she had faced pressure to pull punches in her role of policing District agencies' compliance with the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act. "I resisted the pressure, and I do think that that's probably part of the reason that I'm in the position that I'm in today," she said on the "Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU-FM (88.5).
Hughes later said in an interview with The Washington Post that Betsy Cavendish, the mayor's general counsel, had opposed Hughes's 2016 decision to sue the Mayor's Advisory Commission on Caribbean Community Affairs over its refusal to comply with open-meeting laws. That lawsuit emerged as an important test case of the office's enforcement power, with a judge ruling that the commission must follow Hughes's directions.
Hughes, 48, was appointed the first director of the open government office in 2013.
Bowser's office declined to respond to specific questions about Hughes's removal or comments about Cavendish. The mayor "looks forward to the work that the Office of Open Government will continue to do to promote civic engagement and transparency with all stakeholders," a spokeswoman said.
Hughes said that she also was subjected to "personal attacks in an effort to keep me from issuing an opinion" while she was investigating the D.C. Commission on Selection and Tenure of Administrative Law Judges. Hughes found in October 2017 that the commission had repeatedly violated the Open Meetings Act over the course of three years.
She declined to identify the source of those attacks but said it was "an individual within government" who does not work in the mayor's office.
More recently, Hughes issued an opinion last month finding that the board of the District's public hospital, United Medical Center, violated the law when it held a secret vote to close the facility's obstetrics ward — a decision that left Southeast Washington without a hospital for women to give birth or seek prenatal care.
The decision to remove Hughes has provoked a backlash among good-government advocates, who say they fear she is being punished for her strict enforcement of the city's "sunshine laws" and could be replaced with a less independent figure. Some council members echoed those worries.
"She did a good job, and that may be why the board did not want to reappoint her," Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said Monday. "Since there was no statement of reasons for not continuing her appointment, we are left to speculate."
Council Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said he planned to ask questions about Hughes on Thursday at an oversight hearing for the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, which oversees the open-government office. It was that board, whose members are all mayoral appointees, that decided not to renew Hughes's job for a second, five-year term.
"The allegations that she's making of being told to keep quiet or being told not to issue reports are certainly troubling allegations," Allen said. "That's why I want to learn more about it."
Hughes, whose salary is $163,000, said she had struggled to get the staff and resources to carry out her office's mandate, and has only two employees. When it sued the Mayor's Advisory Commission on Caribbean Community Affairs, the office had to rely on pro bono legal representation.
She said the office also faced structural problems because it is overseen by a board of mayoral appointees while simultaneously ensuring that other mayoral appointees comply with the law.
"This office will not be sustainable under this current structure," she said.
Ethics board Chairwoman Tameka Collier did not respond to requests for comment.
Last year, Hughes proposed legislation that would establish a separate, three-person board, jointly appointed by the mayor and council, to oversee the open-government office.
Allen chose not to advance that bill in his committee. He said he does not see a conflict in the ethics board's oversight of Hughes's office.
"I haven't seen [the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability] pull any punches or be afraid of any consequences," Allen said.