- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2011

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray has been in office just 2½ months, but his administration already is reeling under allegations that cash payoffs were made during his campaign and that he doled out high-paying city jobs to political friends who were either underqualified or had undisclosed criminal pasts.

U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. made a rare disclosure last week that his office is working with the FBI to evaluate the allegations.

The concerns of federal investigators and a top-ranking Republican House leader has, in part, resulted in Mr. Gray, a Democrat, retaining the services of Washington superlawyer Robert S. Bennett, who represented President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, New York Times reporter Judith Miller in the Valerie Plame CIA leak grand jury investigation and former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in the Iran-Contra scandal.

The heart of the controversy centers on allegations that former mayoral contender Sulaimon Brown, who, after bashing incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty during the election, received a $110,000-a-year job at the D.C. Department of Health Care Finance, then was fired when questions surfaced about his past.

Mr. Brown’s firing prompted more questions on why he was hired in the first place, leading to accusations by Mr. Brown that Gray campaign consultant Howard L. Brooks and campaign manager Lorraine Green paid him to stay in the race and promised him a job.

The children of both Mr. Brooks and Ms. Green, in addition to those of Mr. Gray’s chief of staff, Gerri Mason Hall, and his communications director, Linda Wharton-Boyd, also received city jobs, sparking allegations of nepotism.

Ms. Wharton-Boyd returned a reporter’s call for comment on this article, asking instead whether it included any of Mr. Gray’s early successes. She never called back to comment directly on concerns about Mr. Gray’s actions.

Gray campaign “consultant” Cherita Whiting, also a Fenty basher, was appointed “special assistant” in the Department of Parks and Recreation despite her admission she failed to disclose a felony conviction for wire fraud on her job application.

The Gray administration provided an application that conflicts with Ms. Whiting’s own account to an oversight committee, yet has refused to publicly disclose that document or an earlier one Ms. Whiting would have filed when she applied for a job with D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat.

The cascading controversies and presence of private lawyers and investigators at such an early stage of a new mayor’s term are virtually unprecedentedin theDistrict and come amid problems for key Gray allies who helped get him elected.

At one point last month, council Chairman Kwame R. Brown, a Democrat, had two fully loaded, city-leased Lincoln Navigators at his disposal, the first with interior not to his liking. The D.C. Office of the Attorney General is investigating Ward 5 Democrat Harry L. Thomas Jr.’s questionable nonprofit, Team Thomas. And Yvette Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, is refusing to answer questions about debts she incurred while leasing a private office with funds intended to help the needy.

Significant roles

With the help of Ward 8 Democrat Marion Barry, who last year was censured and stripped of a powerful committee chairmanship over accusations he violated conflict-of-interest laws, Mr. Brown, Mr. Thomas and Ms. Alexander played significant roles in hoisting Mr. Gray to power.

Now, with Mr. Gray already suffering criticism that he has failed to set a clear agenda for building on the successes of his predecessors, an aura of crisis has fallen over his fledgling administration. D.C. residents — including many who voted for Mr. Gray — are disgruntled.

“I thought it was funny the way the Gray campaign used all those tactics to attack Fenty,” Nia Carry, a preschool teacher who lives in Ward 6, said Friday. “But he’s not so clean himself. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.”

Across the river in Ward 7, in the heart of Mr. Gray’s political base, the sentiments are a mix of anger and concern. Lisa Williams said she is struggling to find work and disappointed in what she sees. “It’s a mess,” she said. “And Gray is handling it by running and getting a lawyer.”

Lavette Morgan, a health care aide who lives in Ward 8, was practically speechless when stopped by a reporter on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Anacostia. “At this time, I have nothing good to say, so I’m not going to say anything at all,” she said.

Among their biggest concerns is whether the mayor is so steeped in political scandal that he cannot address the issue of unemployment and a $312 million budget deficit.

Fenty was a helluva mayor, but he lost touch with the people,” said Raymond Washington, a Ward 8 resident who works for the National Institutes of Health. “Gray needs to come out and hear people’s concerns. They get hungry, and they need something to be hopeful about.

“Now we got to spend all this money on investigations. We’re always spending on the wrong things.”

Become distracted?

Community and labor leaders fear the mayor could become distracted from the city’s more pressing concerns.

“With just over two months in office, I am disheartened to hear about the allegations involving the administration,” said Dwight Bowman, national vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees’ District 14. “I hope that through all of this, the mayor will continue to stay focused on the needs of D.C. residents and the workers who serve them.”

Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, said Mr. Gray has given credence to the narrative advanced by Mr. Fenty during the election: namely, that Mr. Gray would take the city back to the era of dysfunction that ushered in the D.C. financial control board.

“I’m very concerned on several fronts, as a resident and community leader,” Mr. Lynch said. “This government has a serious accountability issue. [Former Mayor Anthony A.] Williams restored fiscal responsibility, and Fenty took it to the next level, including school modernization and working with the business community.

“There’s no clear sign what this administration is going to be known for, except this cloud of controversy. That’s a huge problem.”

Like many other observers who expressed a desire to see Mr. Gray succeed, Mr. Lynch said the situation calls for Mr. Gray to act quickly in identifying and dealing with advisers who may have steered him wrong.

“Mayor Gray needs a political outsider to restore the administration’s credibility within D.C., the business community, Capitol Hill and elsewhere,” he said. “But he needs to do it right now.”

Staffers for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, led by Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, have reportedly met with Sulaimon Brown.

In spite of his rough start, Mr. Gray’s allies remain steadfast in their support and hopeful he finds his footing.

A staff member for one of Mr. Gray’s supporters on the council said that above all, Mr. Gray needs to stop acting like the chairman of the council, where his job was to be a consensus builder and lead.

“What’s frustrating is that we are wasting time dealing with issues that were avoidable,” the staffer said. “We’re genuinely worried about issues like the budget. We just want to be focusing on bigger issues.”