- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ward 4 activist Cherita Whiting, an early and strident supporter of Vincent C. Gray during his successful mayoral campaign, was chosen by Mr. Gray’s transition team out of 67 applicants for a newly created “special assistant” position with the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), reporting solely to the chief of staff.

Ms. Whiting’s name would have jumped off the page for any Gray insider reviewing the applications: A persistent critic of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, Ms. Whiting campaigned vigorously and even penned an endorsement in The Washington Post for Mr. Gray.

But questions about Ms. Whiting’s criminal record and her relationship with Mr. Gray and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier emerged in a recent police internal affairs action sparked by a complaint by Ms. Whiting. The hiring of the politically connected activist to the $65,000-a-year position — which requires her to interface regularly with Chief Lanier’s command staff — raises questions about Mr. Gray’s stated commitment to stamp out cronyism in city government.

It also is unclear whether Ms. Whiting truthfully disclosed on her job application a felony conviction within the past 10 years. In fact, her own admission to The Washington Times last week that she did not disclose a 2001 conviction for wire fraud is contradicted by statements from the Gray administration that she did.

Multiple D.C. officials offered conflicting accounts of what they did or did not know about her. The mayor’s office declined to disclose a copy of her job application.

Last week, Ms. Whiting said she applied for the special assistant position in response to a publicly posted listing and received no special favors in securing the job. However, Mr. Gray’s office and DPR Chief of Staff John Stokes said the position was not publicly posted, but rather was created as an “excepted service” appointment. Such appointments allow the government to use a noncompetitive process to streamline hiring. The interview process to fill more than 200 “excepted service” appointments is continuing, a Gray representative said.

Ms. Whiting also said she is qualified for the job — a communications liaison among police, school and parks officials — by virtue of her years of neighborhood activism. She has served as president, chairman or member of myriad boards and commissions, including the Ward 4 Advisory Neighborhood Commission, the Ward 4 Education Council, D.C. Parent Teachers Association (PTA), the D.C. Public Schools Education Compact Committee and the Commission for Women in the District of Columbia.

Of her criminal record, she told The Times last week, “Those who know, know, and those who didn’t, I felt didn’t need to.”

Ms. Whiting, a D.C. native, has a background in payroll, billing management and human resources, according to her resume. She testified recently that she attended the Academy of Notre Dame but did not finish the 11th grade. Her participation on numerous boards and commissions prompted the D.C. Council to recognize her in November 2005 for “outstanding civic involvement.”

By her own estimation, Ms. Whiting has friends in high places. During a recent internal affairs hearing for a Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officer accused by Ms. Whiting of outing her as a complainant, when questioned by the officer’s attorney, Ms. Whiting denied having a special relationship with Chief Lanier, a Facebook friend. In police interviews and conversations with neighbors, she referred to Chief Lanier as “Cat.”

During that hearing, she also said, “Vincent Gray is my friend too. And he has socialized with me.”

Knack for politics

During the Fenty administration’s efforts to reform D.C. Public Schools, Ms. Whiting showed a knack for politics and activism. In 2007, as Mr. Fenty was planning to take over the schools, she led a protest demonstration in front of his house, according to news reports. That same year, she delivered what news reports called a “sermon” against the school takeover at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Anacostia.

Her withering criticism of Mr. Fenty and his schools plan appeared frequently in news articles, blogs and online comment sections, and earned her a reputation as a formidable foe.

When Mr. Gray announced his mayoral campaign, Ms. Whiting became one of his strongest supporters. In her endorsement of Mr. Gray in The Post in August, she wrote: “Gray is a man of the people. He will listen to us, take care of and include all of us.”

In December, when a Washington Examiner citizen blogger named Mr. Gray the 2010 “Person of the Year,” Ms. Whiting commented online, “BESIDES MY DADDY … I AGREE!”

Ms. Whiting told The Times last week she “never worked harder” than when she campaigned for Mr. Gray, and denied that her support of him had anything to do with her DPR hiring. “There are several others who worked on the campaign who are working in D.C. government,” she said. “I’ve built a reputation based on respect because of the work I do.”

Prior to her hiring, Ms. Whiting worked for eight months as an administrative assistant to D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson. “She did community outreach, constituent services and other projects,” Mr. Mendelson said.

In her job at DPR, Ms. Whiting reports directly to Mr. Stokes. “She knows quite a few people in D.C. government, private industry and across communities,” he said. “Her reach is citywide.”

A concerned citizen

Ms. Whiting’s relationship with Chief Lanier is ambiguous. Both point to Ms. Whiting’s role as an activist in Ward 4, where the chief once served as a district commander. And both insist their relationship is no different from any other the chief may have with a concerned citizen.

But an e-mail Ms. Whiting sent to Chief Lanier last year sparked an internal investigation that evolved into an adverse action that some say led to special treatment of Ms. Whiting.

In November, Ms. Whiting appeared before a three-member trial board and requested to testify anonymously, despite having identified herself as the complainant in her original notice to Chief Lanier, according to a hearing transcript. After 3rd District Police Commander George Kucik, chairman of the hearing, recommended that she testify as “Ms. X,” the attorney for the officer charged with misconduct objected.

Ms. Whiting eventually was instructed to testify to her full name.

In a later hearing on the same matter, police officials insisted that witnesses leave the area outside the hearing room when it was time for Ms. Whiting to testify. “I told them I wasn’t coming down walking past all them people,” she said, adding that she feared retaliation.

During the hearing, James Pressler, the attorney for the police officer, said he had never seen such “astonishing accommodation” for a witness in his 36 years of representing police in such forums.

Ms. Whiting said she brought the complaint to point out misconduct. She said she was treated just like anyone else who tried to help the department.

But when Ms. Whiting heard her name surface as a complainant, additional charges of disclosing the name of a witness were brought against the officer. “She said she was going to get to the bottom of it,” according to a family friend’s testimony. “She was going to contact Cathy Lanier.

“She referred to her as Cat,” the family friend said. “She said they were friends. She said she had it like that with Cat.”

As an additional result of Ms. Whiting’s complaints, a commanding officer involved with the matter was demoted.

“No one has ever called me Cat to my face. Cherita calls me Chief,” Chief Lanier said, She said she had no idea Ms. Whiting worked at DPR and no one consulted her about the position. “Why would the chief of police know anything about why another agency hired anyone?”

Yet on Friday, when The Times visited Ms. Whiting at her office, she was coordinating an intervention involving police and school officials and the families of a student accused of committing a crime. Among the people with whom she was communicating was Assistant Police Chief Diane Groomes, who was copied on Ms. Whiting’s e-mail complaint to Chief Lanier.

Guilty plea

Federal court records show that Ms. Whiting pleaded guilty in 2001 to diverting funds from a radio programming company where she worked as a payroll manager and directing them to friends and a relative. She was sentenced to 22 months in federal prison and was released in April 2003, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

Ms. Whiting pleaded guilty to diverting more than $100,000, which she was ordered to repay. Last week, she said she had paid back less than half the money.

In the 1990s, Ms. Whiting was charged multiple times with fraud, forgery, passing bad checks and theft, according to Maryland court records. In 1994, she pleaded guilty to theft, was placed on home detention and probation and was ordered to pay back $50,000 to a homeowners association in Bladensburg, the records show. In 2000, she had a $14,000 federal tax lien assessed against her.

Last week, Ms. Whiting told The Times that she had not disclosed her federal prison record, despite a box on the D.C. government employment application that asks about felony convictions in the past 10 years.

On Monday, Mr. Mendelson said Ms. Whiting never disclosed a criminal record to him. In July, he received a packet of materials intended to call his attention to the criminal record, he said, but he never verified it and never talked with her about it. “I am not bothered by someone being an ex-offender,” he said.

On Tuesday, Chief Lanier denied any knowledge of Ms. Whiting’s criminal record — despite it surfacing during a trial board hearing and sparking discussion among MPD command staff, according to police sources. “I don’t know the details of her personal situation,” Chief Lanier said.

Later that night, in response to questions about whether Ms. Whiting checked yes or no on her application where it asked about felonies, Gray spokeswoman Linda Wharton-Boyd said in an e-mail, “A check by the Department of Human Resources of Ms. Whiting’s file indicates that her response to this question was yes.”

Ms. Wharton-Boyd did not respond to questions about the contradictory responses from the mayor’s office and Ms. Whiting. She also said her office has “no knowledge” that Ms. Whiting had socialized with Mr. Gray.