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Latest Gray ‘cronyism’ hearing fails to resolve discrepancies

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A former personnel director for Mayor Vincent C. Gray on Friday stuck to her story that the fire chief wanted to hire the son of a D.C. Cabinet member in January, even though three people and a chain of emails point to her as "the architect" of the decision.

"My recollection remains the same," said Judy Banks, testifying before the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment.

It was the first of several tense, yet civil, exchanges with Ms. Banks, the sole witness in the third round of hearings on the mayor's personnel practices.

Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the government operations committee, began the hearings last month to explore allegations of cronyism and unlawfully high salaries of recently hired government employees. Two marathon hearings produced an apology from Mr. Gray's former chief of staff, Gerri Mason Hall, and accounts of how children of some high-ranking city officials were hired.

So far, Ms. Cheh said, the hearings seem to show there was a small group of trusted individuals making personnel decisions on behalf of Mr. Gray.

Her sense is that Mr. Gray was "shocked" by how personnel decisions played out, "and how it undercut his administration right at the beginning."

Ms. Banks came on board Jan. 3 to assist Mr. Gray's team with the hiring process, including political appointees who serve at the will of the mayor. She has since returned to her job at the Washington Convention Center Authority.

Ms. Cheh said a legislative look at the excepted service may be appropriate.

The system is useful for surrounding a leader with people loyal enough to carry out policy, "however, there are limits," she added, namely that the people are qualified and not just associated with the executive.

Probing lines of questioning examined the concept at Ms. Banks' second appearance at the John A. Wilson Building. She initially testified at the end of a marathon hearing on March 28.

Council member David A. Catania addressed the discrepancy between Ms. Banks' initial testimony and April 7 testimony from D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Chief Kenneth Ellerbe, former Department of Employment Services head Rochelle Webb and her son, Brandon Webb.

"I'm giving you the opportunity to clarify what is otherwise perjury," said Mr. Catania, at-large independent, adding later, "I don't see why you continue to dig yourself in a hole."

Ms. Banks remained steadfast in her recollection that Chief Ellerbe initiated talks about Mr. Webb, who eventually resigned.

"Well, you're going to have conflicting testimony," Ms. Banks said, concluding, "He says he did not, I say he did."

The committee, especially Mr. Catania, also dug into the dramatic saga of Sulaimon Brown, who has said Gray confidante Lorraine A. Green and campaign consultant Howard Brooks gave him cash payments and promised him a job to stay in last year's mayoral race and bash incumbent Adrian M. Fenty on Mr. Gray's behalf.

Mr. Brown, hired to a $110,000-per-year job at the Department of Healthcare Finance, proved to be a problem child early on, according to Ms. Banks. She sent an email about the issue to both Ms. Hall and Ms. Green.

"Why is Lorraine Green intimately involved in the hire of someone like Sulaimon Brown?" Mr. Catania said.

Ms. Cheh, too, noted Ms. Green seems to pop up as an "alter ego" for the mayor in Ms. Banks' correspondence.

When Ms. Banks received an email from a reporter with The Washington Times about Cherita Whiting, a Gray appointee who turned out to have a criminal record, Ms. Banks sent an email to Ms. Green that said, "This is not good."

Ms. Green is scheduled to testify before the committee on May 13. Process servers are also looking for Mr. Brown and Ms. Whiting to subpoena them ahead of the hearing after concluding the pair were willfully evading the service of subpoenas to testify at Friday's hearing.

Although they have said they are not avoiding the summonses, "certainly no one has come forward to collect their subpoenas," Ms. Cheh said.

Mr. Brooks and his son, Peyton Brooks, who resigned from a city job, have exercised their Fifth Amendment rights to remain silent.

Meanwhile, at the request of Mr. Catania, Ms. Cheh will issue a subpoena for all the emails from Ms. Banks' brief tenure in Mr. Gray's administration.

And Ms. Cheh gave Ms. Banks an opportunity to correct her testimony, should her own recollection change.

Ms. Webb, who was dismissed by the mayor last month, attended the hearing to follow developments. She said she was surprised that Ms. Banks is "still clinging to her story."

"They don't want the truth to come out," she said.

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