I’m no mind reader. But sitting in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman on Monday and observing the jurors’ faces as attorney Donald Temple delivered his closing arguments in the case of Eric Payne v. the District of Columbia, every fiber of my being sensed that justice was soon going to roll “down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Rhetorically a bit much, I know.
Exuberance was called for. In 2009, the D.C. government fired Payne, an honorable public servant, for dishonorable reasons.
Following six years of litigious stonewalling by the District, Payne on Monday seemed on the verge of finally getting the justice he deserved. The next day, he did.
A jury of seven D.C. women and three men found that their government had wrongfully demoted and fired Payne from his job as a director in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OCFO). The jurors ordered the District to pay $1.7 million to Payne in compensatory damages.
As well the city should.
●Blowing the whistle on corrupt contracting practices within the CFO’s office;
●Not succumbing to political pressure to do something illegal with regard to the D.C. Lottery contract;
●Complaining about the OCFO’s information technology and legal contracts; and,
●Being unwilling to execute an illegal directive issued by his superior.
However, it wasn’t enough to just fire Payne. He was blacklisted, he said, and couldn’t get a job anywhere in this town. He lost his house. Facing financial ruin, scared and depressed, Payne and his pregnant wife, Brandy, lost their unborn baby.
The only job that the near penniless and desperate Payne could get was out of the country, working in the middle of a desert. Which he did for three years in Saudi Arabia before returning to the Washington area for the trial.
Pleased with the verdict? You bet. Payne deserves every cent of the compensation, in addition to back pay and, I hope, an offer to return to his old job as office director — which he should accept.
I devoted several columns over the past several years to Payne and the city’s machinations surrounding the D.C. Lottery contract. That contract was the chief cause of Payne’s shameful firing and the reason the city’s shabby business dealings ended up in court.
The D.C. attorney general’s office devoted every means and tax dollar at its disposal to defend contemptible D.C. bureaucrats and ethically challenged politicians. Instead of weighing in on behalf of a public official standing up to a corrupt culture engulfing the city, the attorney general’s staff sided with officials who abused their authority, tolerated improper influence on contracts and retaliated against a whistleblower.
So, yes, there are reasons to be pleased that 10 D.C. residents serving as jurors had the good sense and courage to set things right.
D.C. residents should be shamed by their government’s treatment of Payne — and outraged by the use of tax dollars to defend the indefensible.
Payne’s case is one more reason journalists and citizens should never take their eyes off the government.
The saving grace to this unseemly affair is that a now-retired Gandhi, and former Ward 1 Council member Jim Graham, who was defeated, thankfully, in his 2014 reelection bid, are no longer in the D.C. government. If you, dear reader, have the chance, review all of the Payne-related court documents and legal proceedings that involve Gandhi and Graham.
Those two will live in infamy for their roles in Payne’s torment.
In January, Vincent Gray returns to government service as a Ward 7 D.C. Council member. He was mayor during Payne’s tenure with the OCFO. Gray was up to his eyeballs in the wrangling over the D.C. Lottery contract, making no secret of his political opposition to the vendor to whom Payne rightfully and legally awarded the contract.
Gray has good reason to believe he was treated unfairly by the U.S. attorney’s office in the probe of corrupt campaign finance practices in the 2010 D.C. Democratic primary.
Payne has good reason to feel the same way about his treatment at the hands of Gray.
The former mayor has a long history of public service. His role in the takedown of Payne, however, leaves a stain on the Gray record that the passage of time will not remove. Penitence, perhaps, might make that happen.
The city’s current chief financial officer, Jeffrey S. DeWitt, has restored integrity and honesty to the position he holds. Those qualities are sadly lacking in some senior OCFO staff that DeWitt inherited from Gandhi. Several were allied in the vendetta against Payne. They are present-day faces of injustice. Let justice once again roll “down like water” and flush them out of the system.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.