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IN OTHER WORDS: Giving credit where credit may not be due

- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2011

When D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray announced Wednesday that language in Congress' short-term spending measure allowed the District to spend its local dollars in the new fiscal year "for the first time ever," it generated some interest in the way that anything might that has never happened before.

The Washington Times printed a short story on the announcement, which Mr. Gray — gleefully backed by D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi — made during a breakfast meeting with D.C. Council members.

The mayor credited Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, Missouri Republican, for inserting the language in the continuing resolution that will keep money flowing during the federal budget process and for being a "good friend to the District."

So we were a bit surprised Thursday when we were shown a news release received via email from Kezmiche Atterbury in the office of D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton with the breathless subject line: "PRESS ALERT: Correction to Washington Times Report." (We had not received the emailed news release because Ms. Atterbury did not send it to the reporter who wrote the story.)

The thrust of the release seemed to suggest that Mrs. Norton, who was not mentioned during Mr. Gray's announcement, deserved the credit for doing in 2003 what Mr. Gray had praised Mrs. Emerson for — namely, securing the authority in a continuing resolution for the District to spend at current funding levels instead of last year's funding levels.

OK, point taken. Perhaps we should have contacted the District's sole yet non-voting voice in Congress to verify any matter related to the District's relationship with Capitol Hill.

Oh, wait. We did.

The Washington Times reached out to Mrs. Norton's office to talk about the issue shortly after the mayor's announcement Wednesday. We got no response.

Well, that's not exactly true. After 6 p.m. Wednesday, the congresswoman issued a muddled press release based on an unspecified "media inquiry."

Specifically, it wanted everyone to know that the District does not have carte blanche to spend its fiscal 2012 dollars for the whole year, and its local spending authorization expires with the continuing resolution Nov. 18.

We thought, perhaps, they were discussing some other media inquiry. Because the report in The Times does not say the District is in the clear for all of fiscal 2012 and it notes that the resolution expires Nov. 18.

After the subsequent blast email Thursday (which we are again obligated to mention was not sent to the reporter who wrote the story and whose calls seeking information were not returned), we knew they had been reacting to our inquiries. So we spent a good part of Thursday trying to find out what the heck happened.

We got this email from Ms. Atterbury: "We do not believe the errors in the story were your fault because you were reporting on information from others at the breakfast."

We guessed she meant the mayor of the District, so that left us wondering what the mayor was trying to say exactly.

"We think that the mayor must have believed that the authority to spend at next year's level was new, and if so, then he must have thought that Representative Emerson was responsible since she is the current chair of the subcommittee," Ms. Atterbury said in a later email. "As we indicated, however, Norton negotiated this authority in 2003."

In a subsequent phone call with Mrs. Norton, she said there was nothing wrong with the story, but it was getting picked up and portrayed as something "novel and new," so her office "didn't feel we could lie back."

Ah.

Mrs. Norton said Mrs. Emerson is a longtime friend and ally for the District who recently saved her D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant bill that affords D.C. residents the financial opportunity to attend public colleges around the country.

"I don't have any problem giving her credit, but I think we should give her credit for the right thing," Mrs. Norton said.

So if indeed the wrong person was credited with a less-than unprecedented minor development, who made the mistake? We turned to the mayor's office.

A city official familiar with last week's budget autonomy announcement said on background — as officials are wont to do when they are accepting responsibility — that there was, indeed, a misunderstanding at the John A. Wilson Building.

While Mr. Gray did note that GOP figures who preceded Mrs. Emerson never showed much love for the District — she is a Ward 2 resident who was born in the D.C. area — his announcement Wednesday made it sound like the development was a new benchmark for the city's ability to spend its own funds.

"This is the first time this has ever happened and hopefully will establish a precedent going forward," Mr. Gray had said during the council breakfast.

Thomas M. Davis III, a former Republican congressman from Northern Virginia who advised the District, pro bono, on congressional relations, explained to us that the crux of Mr. Gray's message was that "the Republicans have put the language in."

"And that's a big deal," he said Friday. "I think he's right to crow about this."

Because continuing-resolution debates do not occur every year, and this year being a banner year for such spending stalemates, Mr. Gray may not have "really experienced this" as mayor or D.C. Council chairman, the city official familiar with the events said.

Mrs. Norton noted that her office on the Hill is the one that tends to drill into the details of these kinds of things, since in the past it has had "horrific effects on the District."

In short, it looks as if the mayor's office made a minor mistake in not coordinating with Mrs. Norton's office before making an announcement on an issue pertaining to the District's relationship with Capitol Hill.

But who knows? After our experience, we could believe that they did call — and maybe nobody responded.

Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report

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