- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2011

Rochelle Webb has had a week to “get over the shock” of the abrupt end of her city job on April 1 — a parable of sorts on how an outsider was swept into the gears of local influence and the roulette known as the excepted service, a system of political hires who serve at the will of the executive.

After watching it all unfold in government reports, testimony and a string of unflattering Google hits, she wants to “fill in the blanks.”

“Now is the time for me to say what exactly is happening,” Ms. Webb, a Texan who came to the District via a high-level post in Arizona, told The Washington Times on Monday in a cafe in Northwest.

Her trail to the District began in December, when she gathered her Arizona staff to let them know Santa had given her an early Christmas gift.

“That’s exactly what I said,” she recalled.

Ms. Webb, knowing a new administration would block her path to a Cabinet-level position in the Grand Canyon State, had been appointed to lead the District's Department of Employment Services (DOES) after successful talks with a recruiter and Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray.

She had plenty of reasons to be optimistic. The job fit her skills, included a salary that was $15,000 above what she had requested, paid her relocation fees and allowed her to bring her own team to effect the mayor’s goals, she said.

But after an auspicious start — partnerships, constructive meetings and seeming progress — her holiday blessing unraveled less than 90 days into the Gray era amid reports that a string of perks had come Ms. Webb’s way, including a personal driver, a $4,000-plus stay at the W Hotel and handpicked associates from Arizona and Texas to work alongside her.

Two turning points

The fact that her son, Brandon Webb, had been hired by the D.C. Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services only added fuel to the fire, and at least one council member said he had reservations about her confirmation as director.

All that, Ms. Webb said, is a smoke screen for two things. She said her early dismissal was based on fear of what she would say in testimony before the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment and her open concern for how the city funded its Project Empowerment program, an initiative that helps D.C. residents advance from welfare to the workplace.

Sitting in a cafe booth next to her son, who resigned under political pressure after reports of Cabinet members’ children obtaining city jobs, Ms. Webb said a pair of key, and quite public, turning points forestalled her confirmation as head of DOES.

The first came in the form of Sulaimon Brown, a minor mayoral candidate who says he was paid cash and offered a city job to stay in the race and bash then-incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. He was fired from a $110,000-a-year job at the Department of Healthcare Finance after reports of his checkered past, leading him to make the claims against the mayor’s campaign team.

The incident, and resulting investigations by the U.S. attorney’s office, a House oversight committee and the D.C. Council changed the tone across city government — or, as Ms. Webb put it, “from the offensive to defensive.”

The second was more personal, unfolding over the course of five days. It began with testimony from former interim personnel director Judy Banks before the D.C. Council on March 28, describing Mr. Webb’s hiring as a request from acting Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe.

The week ended that Friday with Ms. Webb’s dismissal, after she informed acting Chief of Staff Paul A. Quander Jr. and Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Victor Hoskins of her plans to testify that Ms. Banks had the story backward.

Ms. Banks is expected to offer additional testimony this month before the committee.

After refusing to resign, Ms. Webb said, city officials drew up separation papers and confiscated her government materials.

Ms. Webb testified Thursday her son passed his resume through her to Ms. Banks, who asked Chief Ellerbe if he had a spot for Mr. Webb in his department. She also said she felt threatened by the meeting with Mr. Quander and Mr. Hoskins, leading D.C. Council member David A. Catania, at-large independent, to note she was making a serious allegation that amounts to witness tampering.

Mr. Quander issued a statement calling her recollection of their meetings “inaccurate.”

“Neither Deputy Mayor Hoskins nor I delivered any threats to Dr. Webb,” he said in an email. “We also made no attempt to influence her testimony before Councilmember [Mary M.] Cheh’s committee or any other government body. I am a former federal prosecutor, and I understand witness tampering - and our intereactions with Dr. Webb didn’t come anywhere near crossing ethical of legal lines.”

Her side of the story

In the public spotlight, Ms. Webb said she was thrown under the bus by the same folks who signed off on her transition benefits. And, she added, she was the only one who felt the heat despite learning from her driver that previous DOES directors had employed staff members as chauffeurs.

“It wasn’t that I came in and created a driver position or demanded a driver,” she said.

Ms. Webb self-reported the use of a driver in a survey sent to agency heads by D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation.

When asked by staff what to put down on the questionnaire, Ms. Webb recalled that she said, “The truth.”

“I think that was new to some in District government,” she said.

Ms. Webb said the team she assembled, three from Arizona and one Texan, was part of the plan from the beginning.

After working in the public sector in multiple states, she said, she knew she didn’t want political hires and let the administration know it. The hires, such as the driver, and hotel stay were preapproved, Ms. Webb said.

“It’s not like I snuck them in the backdoor,” she said.

She and her son, who is married with two children, are living in Northeast while dealing with their respective mortgages at home. Mr. Webb said he is working on bringing his family to the District, which he sees as a better fit than Arizona.

Ms. Webb, who until a few weeks ago was leading job-creation efforts in the District, finds herself looking for a position in the nation’s capital.

“I’m going to make a go of it in D.C.,” she said.