D.C. Council seeks court order to compel witnesses

Wants answers from Gray staffers on hiring process

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The D.C. Council on Tuesday sought a court order to bring in key witnesses who have ducked hearings on Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s personnel practices.

In a unanimous vote, the council said the D.C. Superior Court should require Sulaimon Brown and Cherita Whiting to appear before the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment or face contempt charges.

Mr. Brown — a minor mayoral candidate who says he was paid and promised a job by the Gray campaign team to stay in last year’s primary race and bash incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty — is the central figure in the investigation. He has voiced his displeasure with the council’s hearings and puts his faith in parallel investigations by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the House of Representatives’ oversight committee.

Ms. Whiting, who worked on Mr. Gray’s campaign, was hired as a special assistant in the Department of Parks and Recreation, but resigned after reports in The Washington Times about her undisclosed criminal background. She, like Mr. Brown, did not appear to testify by the council’s noon Friday deadline.

Mr. Brown says Mr. Gray’s campaign chairman, Lorraine A. Green, and campaign consultant Howard Brooks paid him cash to stay in the race.

Ms. Green denied those claims in a hearing before the council committee Friday, which ended abruptly when Ms. Green declined to answer questions about her conversations with Mr. Brooks after Mr. Brown’s accusations were made public.

Mr. Brooks has asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege to remain silent and avoid self-incrimination.

Committee Chairman Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, said Mr. Brooks is not required to appear before the committee and assert his right, given the serious nature of the allegations, but that his son, Peyton Brooks, does not enjoy the same protection. She said the younger Mr. Brooks, who received a city job and later resigned, is not accused of criminal activity and should be compelled to testify.

“If witnesses believe that they can ignore our subpoenas or refuse to testify by falsely claiming a Fifth Amendment privilege, then the council’s ability to do its work is greatly impaired,” Mrs. Cheh said before Tuesday’s vote.

Mrs. Cheh said Mr. Brown, Ms. Whiting and the younger Mr. Brooks would be held in contempt of court if they flout a court order to appear. There is precedent for a blanket fine and additional fines for every day of non-compliance, Mrs. Cheh said.

Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, said he brought up potential sanctions — the only discussion of the matter, which passed on a voice vote — to let reluctant witnesses know “they will face some penalties.”

Mr. Wells said the investigation, while unfortunate in its root cause, is an important duty of the council.

“We need to show that we can hold the other branch accountable,” he said after the council meeting.

With court issues in limbo, the series of hearings on Mr. Gray’s personnel practices are effectively over. The committee’s next step is to draft a report with recommendations, although its completion is contingent on additional testimony.

Testimony in four marathon hearings centered on the role of the excepted service — political appointees who serve at the will of the mayor. Asked on Tuesday if the committee’s report would include proposals on excepted service reform, Mrs. Cheh said, “Absolutely.”

“I started to see that right off,” she said.

Mrs. Cheh said recommendations may include trimming the number of excepted service personnel, establishing guidelines on who appointees may report to and implementing tighter scrutiny of nepotism.

Council member David A. Catania, at-large independent, has aggressively questioned each of the witnesses who cooperated with the committee. At this stage, his main priority is compelling the rest of the witnesses to appear, a member of his staff said Tuesday.

Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat, said it is unfortunate that the issue “took on a life of its own.”

What is ignored, he said, is that people who work on political campaigns often give up other jobs to support a candidate, only to face accusations of nepotism if they want to continue their work when the candidate becomes an elected official.

He noted that the mayor has not been directly implicated by testimony, yet there were real concerns about the “fast track” some of his appointees received.

“I think it’s a lesson learned,” he said, “that you have to cross all your T’s and dot all your I’s in doing this.”

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