- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A hearing Friday by the D.C. Government Operations Committee into the personnel practices of Mayor Vincent C. Gray features a witness list that could shed a bright light on the inner workings of his administration’s postelection hiring spree, but promises — like four previous sessions — to turn the panel’s oversight exercise into a political dead end.

Given signs that key witnesses are refusing to comply with subpoenas issued by Committee Chairwoman Mary Cheh, observers say District residents should brace themselves for a hearing — if not a final committee report — of little consequence. Lost in the rhetoric of nepotism and public integrity that has emanated from Ms. Cheh’s committee hearings is a trail of conflicting testimony and unanswered, if not unasked, questions.

Sulaimon Brown, the failed mayoral candidate who prompted the hearings with his claims of receiving a job and bag money from Gray confidante Lorraine Green and her operative, Howard Brooks, to stay in the race and trash incumbent candidate Adrian M. Fenty, has pledged to ignore Ms. Cheh’s subpoena.

Court action to enforce the subpoena would require a committee vote and approval by the full council, a Cheh staffer said on Tuesday. Based on the composition of the council and the indifference of many of its members to the hiring irregularities, such approval is far from certain.

Mr. Brooks, having signaled his intention to invoke Fifth Amendment silence, was removed from the witness list by Ms. Cheh, who cited ethical reasons. And Ms. Green, who is expected to appear, is said to be considering invoking her Fifth Amendment right when she is called to testify.

If she does so, that would leave perhaps the top three witnesses in the hiring scandal unexamined by Ms. Cheh’s committee.

Beyond the resistance of key witnesses and council members, council staffers say Ms. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, has a political dilemma: Mr. Gray is a political ally, and yet Ward 3 residents voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Fenty.

“Is she caught between a rock and a hard place? Yes. Has it influenced her handling of the matter? Absolutely,” said one council staffer who wished to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Another council staff member told The Washington Times that Ms. Cheh has expressed discomfort with the hearings, while signaling support for Mr. Gray and a belief that he was simply ill served by a cadre of close advisers — several of whom have been fired or have left the administration.

Yet one witness scheduled to appear on Friday, who has been largely overlooked by the committee, presents challenges to the notion that Mr. Gray was uninformed as to the irregularities of his administration’s hiring process.

Cherita Whiting, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner who bashed Mr. Fenty throughout the campaign and who received a $2,000 consulting fee from Mr. Gray after the election, was appointed to a special assistant job at the Department of Parks and Recreation, despite her admission to The Times that she failed to disclose a felony wire fraud conviction from 2001.

Her appointment also went ahead, according to an email from a Gray supporter, despite warnings last July to the then-council chairman that Ms. Whiting had an undisclosed criminal past. Ms. Whiting resigned from the District government in April, six weeks after the undisclosed conviction was exposed by The Times.

The Gray administration has refused to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests for redacted copies of all job applications filed by Ms. Whiting since she came home from federal prison in 2003, including one she filed before being hired by council member Phil Mendelson last year.

On Tuesday, a Cheh staff member said she was unaware whether Ms. Cheh had reviewed Ms. Whiting’s personnel file, and offered no reason for why Ms. Cheh chose not to ask questions about Ms. Whiting of former human resources director Judy Banks, who testified recently for the second time before the committee.

“I’m not sure about the documentation,” said the staffer, when asked about a purported job application that conflicts with Ms. Whiting’s admission that she never disclosed her past. “It’s something we’d like to ask Ms. Whiting.”

One member of the committee, council member David A. Catania, has warned that conflicting statements by Ms. Banks and others could amount to perjury. But Ms. Cheh has emphasized she is not conducting a criminal hearing, and is limited in her authority, particularly in light of the U.S. attorney’s interest in the matter.

“We’re just using these witnesses as examples of problems with the mayor’s hiring practices,” said a spokesperson for Ms. Cheh.

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