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Gray cronyism probe sparks call for reform

Council would limit number of ‘excepted service’ slots

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D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh plans to introduce legislation next month that reduces the number of political appointees afforded the mayor, calls for proper screening of appointees and sheds light on their qualifications.

Mrs. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, announced her plans Wednesday before she and two fellow council members, David A. Catania and Tommy Wells, approved a report that sharply criticized the administration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray for engaging in cronyism, paying city salaries above legal caps and illegally hiring the children of senior officials during the first months of his term.

Mrs. Cheh, chairman of the Special Committee on Investigation of Executive Personnel Practices, said she thinks there is a role for political appointees who serve in the "excepted service," which allows an executive to pick a loyal team and carry out policy.

But she questioned whether the District needed to reserve 160 of these positions for its mayor.

"That does seem like a very large number to accomplish this task," Mrs. Cheh said. "And the larger the number, of course, the greater opportunity for mischief."

Mrs. Cheh said the people also must be qualified, with a list of their names readily available to the public.

The committee's report on Mr. Gray and his team, released Tuesday, was based on information gleaned from 19 witnesses who provided more than 25 hours of testimony from March through June. The committee reviewed 20,000 pages of documents, including phone and text messages, bank records, more than 12,000 emails and other records.

In addition to a reduction in the political hires allotted to the mayor, it recommended tighter controls to avoid nepotism and a closer look at the minimum qualifications and maximum salaries for excepted service appointees.

The mayor was largely spared in the report, which placed most of the blame for personnel errors on the staffers responsible for hiring political appointees and then placing them in agencies.

Mr. Catania, at-large independent, said the mayor had a right to place faith in his staff, but he concurred with Mrs. Cheh's belief that Mr. Gray's team made numerous missteps.

"I share with you the view that their transgressions were breathtaking and have done a lot to contribute to a negative view of this government," he said Wednesday.

Mr. Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, also praised Ms. Cheh's findings and recommendations, noting that it is time to move forward as a city.

"This has been a huge diversion and distraction," he said.

Two members of the special committee - council members Michael A. Brown, at-large independent, and Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat - did not attend Wednesday's 3-0 vote.

"I can't drag them here to be present," Mrs. Cheh said.

The committee's report found "strong evidence" that Howard Brooks, a campaign consultant during Mr. Gray's run for mayor last year, provided funds and a job to minor mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown to stay in the primary race to attack incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

Mr. Brown leveled the dramatic accusations after he was hired, then fired, from a $110,000-a-year job in the Department of Healthcare Finance.

The report said two of five children of top-ranking officials hired by the city government acquired their positions through illegal influence.

It also found 14 mayoral appointees had received salaries that were above the legally mandated cap, the report states.

Among referrals to other city agencies, the committee wants the Office of Campaign Finance to investigate whether Mr. Brown documented funds he is said to have received from Mr. Brooks, and if the Gray team properly documented all of its contributions and expenditures.

It also asked the U.S. Attorney for the District to look into possible acts of perjury in testimony before the committee by Mr. Brown and Judy Banks, who served as the interim director of the D.C. Department of Human Resources during Mr. Gray's transition.

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