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Emails: Ousted D.C. government watchdog frustrated the mayor’s aides

D.C. Office of Open Government Director Traci Hughes, left, testifies at a February 8, 2018 hearing with Tameka Collier, chairwoman of the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability that decided not to reappoint her.
D.C. Office of Open Government Director Traci Hughes, left, testifies at a February 8, 2018 hearing with Tameka Collier, chairwoman of the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability that decided not to reappoint her. (Fenit Nirappil / The Washington Post)
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Aides to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) complained about the District government watchdog who was cracking down on agencies that flouted transparency rules last year, recently released emails show.

The communications shed new light on tensions in city government before the ouster of the watchdog, Office of Open Government Director Traci L. Hughes.

The Board of Ethics and Government Accountability unanimously decided in February against reappointing Hughes. Her five-year term expires April 22.

Government transparency advocates and some lawmakers condemned the decision, questioning whether it was retribution because Hughes aggressively enforced the city’s open-meetings law.

Tameka Collier, who chairs the ethics board, has said that the decision to remove Hughes was not politically motivated and that she faced no pressure from the mayor’s office to do so.

A spokeswoman for the mayor said the office did not call for Hughes’s ouster, but acknowledged that staff complained about Hughes to Collier. Collier declined to discuss those conversations.

Emails obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request by open-government advocate Joshua Tauberer and provided to The Washington Post show top staff in Bowser’s office grumbling about Hughes. In some cases, agencies appealed to the mayor’s staff for help after Hughes took action against them.

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In many states, a prosecutor or attorney general enforces open-meetings laws, which spell out rules for government transparency.

But the District lacks similarly independent enforcement. The city has an open-government office, which investigates violations of open-meetings laws. But the director of the office is hired and fired by the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, a panel of five mayoral appointees who are confirmed by the D.C. Council.

The unusual structure has led to tension.

In 2016, after repeated warnings, Hughes sued the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Caribbean Community Affairs for failing to meet basic requirements of open-meetings laws, including advertising upcoming meetings and recording them.

A judge found violations of the Open Meetings Act in late September 2017, and Hughes advised an official in the mayor’s office a week later that the commission shouldn’t meet until the judge’s order was finalized.

That prompted a stir. A lawyer for the mayor questioned Hughes’s authority and had sharp words for her in an email.

“Crazy the Director of Open Government — wants to close government,” Steve Walker, the head of the Mayor’s Office of Talent and Appointments, wrote in an email to the mayor’s general counsel, Betsy Cavendish.

“I know! And I want the German Chancellor to run the United States instead of the U.S. President! World is upside down,” Cavendish replied.

A month later, Chief Administrative Law Judge Eugene Adams forwarded a lengthy complaint about Hughes to Cavendish.

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Hughes conducted a sweeping review of the D.C. Commission on Selection and Tenure of Administrative Law Judges, which oversees the appointment, discipline and removal of the judges who handle matters that include government benefits, code violations and rent control. She found repeated violations of the Open Meetings Law that in some cases called into question the legality of personnel decisions and other actions taken during meetings.

Adams accused Hughes of overreach, and the mayor’s lawyer responded that Hughes was “way outside her lane and reckless.”

“I’ve also learned that this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of difficulties w/her,” Adams said in a Nov. 10 email, referring to Hughes.

“[P]enthouse of a skyscraper,” Cavendish replied.

Collier and other ethics board members received the same complaints, and she sought a conference call with Cavendish to discuss the judge’s concerns. After the call, Collier told the judge there was nothing they could do.

In an interview, Collier said the decision against reappointing Hughes was not a direct result of the complaints about her.

“It wasn’t tied to any particular action, the timing of it was because this is when her term expires,” Collier said.

On Feb. 16, officials at United Medical Center emailed the mayor’s office of legal counsel asking to talk about “ongoing issues” with Hughes, who found the public hospital’s board broke the law by voting behind closed doors to permanently shut down the obstetrics ward.

No call took place, according to the mayor’s office, and the hospital eventually released a recording of that meeting.

In an interview, Hughes said it was troubling how agencies under scrutiny for open-government violations turned to Bowser’s office.

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“If they can just automatically go to the mayor’s office and complain and no deference is given to the enforcement authority of the entity issuing opinions, that’s essentially saying to people you don’t have to follow the law or we can pick and choose when you want to follow the law,” said Hughes. “That’s a dangerous precedent.”

She said the emails support her suspicion the mayor’s office played a role in her losing her position.

Aides to Bowser said Hughes is wrong.

“Mayor Bowser has been a champion for accountability and transparency since she was the Ward 4 council member. The Office of Open Government was established because of her legislation and commitment to funding for the office,” said LaToya Foster, a Bowser spokeswoman.

As the city searches for Hughes’s successor, the job posting says the director should work in consultation with the “senior attorney advisor” at the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability. That’s a change from the current design, under which Hughes operates separately from the board.

Collier said the change is designed to keep the ethics board better informed.

Open government advocates say it will muzzle the new director.

The arrangement would “forfeit the independence the council intended for this open government watchdog agency,” leaders of the D.C. Open Government Coalition, a group that advocates for transparency in city government, said in an April 2 letter to city officials.

Hughes said she worries her successor will face pressure to drop investigations.

“If we become concerned about the embarrassment or inconvenience to the administration simply by asking public bodies to follow the law, that’s going to frustrate the entire purpose of the Office of Open Government,” she said.

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said it’s essential to preserve the independence — and the perception of independence — of the city’s ethics agencies.

“We the council, we the city, have a very vested interest in having a BEGA we trust,” said Allen, who chairs a committee that oversees the agency. “If we see that good standing eroded, it’s problematic for us all.”

Peter Jamison contributed to this report.