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D.C. ANC members break the rules without redress

City has no power to police

- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 29, 2011

By day, Regina James makes $68,000 a year detecting fraud for the D.C. government. By night, she stood by in a low-level elected position as tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds under her watch disappeared in a few months. She trampled on regulations to protect the secrecy of the fund's expenditures while District authorities did nothing.

And on Tuesday, District officials considered paying out even more cash, as much as $16,000, to replace some of what was lost — without replacing those who oversaw the loss.

In June, the D.C. auditor determined that William Shelton withdrew $30,000 from an Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5B account, spending it on payments for a Lexus and purchases at Bloomingdale's. Mr. Shelton was chairman of the ANC in Ward 5, one of 37 little-scrutinized boards of elected officials each with budgets in the tens of thousands.

In the few weeks since replacing Mr. Shelton as the top official at the bottom of the city's political hierarchy, Ms. James has punished colleagues who called for accountability, refused to give elected officials access to records, flouted legal judgments by city agencies, closed meetings to public comment, moved to hire a highly paid staffer and acted so suspiciously that she was evicted from a room in a drug-treatment facility where she had set up an office.

In the process, she illuminated systemic failings in the way that nearly $1 million in public money is expended yearly across a tangle of D.C. agencies, each employing full-time staff devoted to overseeing the commissions.

In the aftermath of the Shelton revelations, internal deliberations reviewed by The Washington Times detail not outrage, but protection.

"Like it or not, Commissioner Shelton is still one of us, and Commissioner Daniels is still one of us. We have all made mistakes. He who is without sin cast the first stone," Ms. James wrote to colleagues.

The board's treasurer, Patricia Brown-Daniels, said she had never looked at a bank statement. One commissioner, Vaughn Bennett, called for Ms. Brown-Daniels to be stripped of financial oversight, and the 10-member board quickly fell in line — and voted to strip Mr. Bennett of his position as secretary. At a brief meeting at which no public comment was allowed, Ms. James declined to give any reason for the removal.

D.C. overseers said they exist to support the elected officials, not police them.

The office

There is no indication that ANC 5B has spent money on the community in recent years. Instead, it has purchased high-end BlackBerry service for every part-time, volunteer commissioner, recorded in auditor's reports as a landline expense. The commission currently owes $8,000 to AT&T.

And it maintained office space inside a Salvation Army facility, where without any discussion or contract drawn up by the commission, Mr. Shelton began paying a friend, Patsy Staten, $25 an hour to answer phones about 25 hours a week. Ms. Staten signed her own timesheets. In repeated calls to the ANC office during those hours, no one ever picked up the phone.

Asked what she did at the office on a typical day, Ms. Staten said: "Twiddle my thumbs."

Ms. Staten held at least three such jobs simultaneously and regularly mingled their accounts, billing supplies to one account and having them delivered to another, invoices obtained by The Times show.

In one, she worked for Mr. Shelton at a charity called the Young Adults Corporation of Washington, D.C., where Mr. Shelton oversaw $100,000 in D.C. funds intended for troubled children.

Thousands of dollars for materials, such as $15 cases of soda, were billed to the ANC and shipped from Maryland to various offices and apartments, some with no apparent connection to the commission.

Mr. Shelton and Ms. Staten possessed the only keys to the office and its records, even after the theft case was referred to law enforcement.

After Mr. Shelton eventually turned in his key, that left only Ms. Staten, who is not part of the elected commission. The new chairwoman, Ms. James, told colleagues that no commissioner but herself could review finances there because of privacy rules at the Salvation Army, which provides drug-treatment services.

That was never true, said the center's executive director, Mary Lynn Logsdon.

"She was so unbelievable," Ms. Logsdon said. "Who knows what was going on back there?"

D.C. law says ANC officials must make documents available to the public upon request. But when they were requested at the front desk of the Salvation Army, Ms. James refused to come out of the office and called the police.

"I don't give a damn about the D.C. code," she said.

Systemic failings

The D.C. auditor's office, which is responsible for reviewing ANC finances,ANC Executive Director Gottlieb Simon's office and the attorney general's office all said Ms. James must turn over documents to the broader commission and to the public. Yet when told she had refused, the oversight agencies said they had no ability to enforce the law.

"We don't have any enforcement mechanisms," Deputy Auditor Lawrence Perry said. "Mr. Simon's office is responsible for administration."

"My office doesn't maintain records from the commissions. The ANC itself has copies," Mr. Simon said. "The auditor's office is responsible for oversight."

The 37 commissions in the city each have four to 12 elected members.

Repeatedly, when constituents brought credible complaints about regulations that were ignored or flouted, the chairman refused to provide easily obtainable documentation, and the Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions declined to obtain them.

Reports that lacked so much as a signature were stamped by the auditor, and many reports submitted to the auditor are missing basic pieces of information. Multiple ANCs routinely failed to deduct taxes.

Commissioner India Henderson, who took over for Ms. Brown-Daniels as treasurer for a stint in 2010, said she documented repeated concerns to Mr. Simon; Lynard Barnum, then the auditor office's chief ANC specialist who resigned weeks ago; and D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, who was then head of the committee with jurisdiction over ANCs. But nothing was ever done.

J.R. Meyers, Ms. Alexander's chief of staff, said the council can refer such concerns only to Mr. Simon's office.

"When we had oversight, some of them would come and not want to talk about their treasurer's report at the hearing, and we couldn't demand otherwise," he said. "ANCs are elected officials, so there isn't the kind of body that governs them."

One in three ANCs still haven't submitted reports months after the last deadline, auditor records show.

"There needs to be better legislation governing when does an ANC have to turn over its books? Right now, it's pretty egregious," Meyers said.

On Tuesday, a panel of D.C. officials indicated it is amenable to providing $16,000 to the commission.

Outside contractor

The only one with knowledge about ANC finances, commissioners said, was Ms. Staten, who has declared bankruptcy twice, records show.

After the commission's coffers were drained by theft and Ms. Staten could no longer be paid, Ms. James announced she had a new "volunteer assistant" named Tony Dugger, a political operative in Ward 5 who worked for the campaign of D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown.

Days later, as the commission prepared for a new infusion of taxpayer funds, an email was sent from Mr. Dugger's account advising that the commission would be hiring a paid "executive director." In meetings, the commission never discussed such a position or drafted the job requirements.

In an interview, Mr. Dugger initially denied sending the job posting, then alternated between disavowing any affiliation with the ANC and defending its actions under Ms. James in detail.

The expanded job description appeared to outsource nearly all of the work that would be done by a part-time, elected advisory neighborhood commission, from drafting policy positions to testifying before city council.

The requirements closely mirror his own resume.

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