Not long after the sudden firing of the District's top environmental official, Christophe Tulou, last month, employees from the city's Department of Environment were told to report to a hastily arranged meeting at the D.C. government offices on Fourth Street Northwest.
The purpose, the staff members were told, was to reassure them that Mayor Vincent C. Gray's administration fully supports the agency. It was the sort of morale-boosting pep talk that employees of an agency where the director gets fired might expect to hear.
But in a wide-ranging talk that lasted about 20 minutes, D.C. City Administrator Allen Lew informed the employees that they were fortunate his chief of staff, Warren Graves, wasn't in charge.
"You guys are really lucky I'm the city administrator because if Warren Graves was in charge, there would be a lot more collateral damage," Mr. Lew said, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by The Washington Times. The Times confirmed the meeting and comments through multiple agency sources.
In subsequent comments, Mr. Lew joked about how a colleague said Mr. Lew had gone to the Attila the Hun school of management, a line that didn’t get any laughs. Mr. Lew also said that Mr. Graves had suggested that Mr. Lew ought to manage by fear. The city administrator, adding that he disagreed with Mr. Graves' management suggestions, later remarked on what he thought was an "incestuous relationship" between DDOE and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Taken together, the remarks have left some DDOE employees feeling far from reassured, according sources inside the department who spoke on the condition that their names not be made public for fear of losing their jobs.
"It feels like the agency has been neutralized," one DDOE employee said. "I think the real message he was trying to get across was to instill fear. It's had a devastating impact on staff morale."
The remarks by Mr. Lew also have raised deeper concerns about the department's stormwater oversight duties involving the District's water and sewer utility, D.C. Water, where Mr. Lew serves on the board of directors. A spokesman for Mr. Lew recently told the Washington Business Journal that Mr. Lew was planning to take "a hard look" at DDOE operations after Mr. Tulou's firing to ensure that the agency isn't overstepping its regulatory role.
It was a plan backed in part by D.C. Water that set off the chain of events that led to Mr. Tulou's firing, sources said. In response to a request from the EPA, the DDOE submitted comments on a draft agreement by the EPA, D.C. Water and the mayor's office on a "green infrastructure" project to reduce sewer overflows into the Anacostia and Potomac rivers and Rock Creek, according to sources with knowledge of the DDOE comments. An EPA spokesman declined to comment other than to say the federal agency has worked closely with DDOE and will continue to do so.
The Gray administration has explained the reason for Mr. Tulou's firing was a "serious breach of protocol." Reached by phone, Mr. Tulou declined to comment. Though he is the most visible example of the "collateral damage" referenced by Mr. Lew, Barry Weise, who served as the department's regulatory and legislative liaison, was dismissed on the same day Mr. Tulou was fired. He, too, declined to comment. Two other department lawyers were suspended, The Times has learned.
Donna Henry, a DDOE spokeswoman, said Tuesday that Mr. Gray still supports the department and that he visited the agency last week.
"Nothing has changed," Ms. Henry said. "There's been no shift in the administration's feeling toward us or support of us."
Asked about Mr. Lew's remarks, Tony Robinson, a spokesman for Mr. Lew, wrote in an email that the city administrator wasn't available Tuesday.
"Also, he will not make any further statement on the recent DDOE disciplinary action or subsequent communication with staff as these are personnel matters," Mr. Robinson wrote in an email.
Mr. Lew was more talkative in his remarks to DDOE staffers, telling them that everybody in the department, as well as in other agencies, ought to have as their top priority supporting the mayor.
"The rest of us are just the supporting cast," he said.
One employee at the meeting raised questions about communicating with the EPA in light of media accounts surrounding Mr. Tulou's firing, but was interrupted by Mr. Lew.
"You ever heard the line 'Timing in life is everything,' you ever heard of that line?" Mr. Lew asked.
"Sure," the employee said.
"This is not about not communicating. We're not talking about censoring. It's the timing of some of those communications," Mr. Lew said, adding that malice might not have been behind what he said was one problematic communication by DDOE to EPA.
"Obviously, there's a very close relationship with EPA," Mr. Lew said, referring to what he called an incestuous relationship between federal and city environmental agencies. Through a spokesman, he declined to elaborate.
Another employee at the gathering questioned why all the workers were told to travel to city offices on Fourth Street rather than Mr. Lew coming to the DDOE headquarters, likening the trip to a "march of shame" for DDOE staffers.
"There was no intent to demoralize you," Mr. Lew replied, saying he wasn't going to pay rent for space in the convention center. "In fact, I'm trying to boost the morale, not bring you down further."
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