D.C. labor board chief resigns over residency, cites discrimination

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The executive director of the board that adjudicates labor and employment disputes in the nation’s capital has resigned, reportedly for having violated the District’s residency laws by living in Virginia.

But according to his May 24 resignation letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, Ondray T. Harris maintains that his residency status was long known to the Public Employees Relations Board (PERB), and that his decision to leave was based on its discrimination against whites, conservatives and pregnant women.

Mr. Harris informed the board of his Virginia residency when he was hired in April 2011, according to the letter, and he continued to disclose his residency through May 2012. In August 2011, the board was reminded of his residency status when an employee with an age and sex discrimination case against the city argued that he should be deemed unfit to serve by virtue of his residency, a separate letter from his attorney to PERB’s general counsel states.

The board, a five-member quasi-judicial independent agency appointed by the mayor that resolves labor-management disputes between D.C. agencies and unionized city employees, took no steps to force him to change his residency status, the letters claim. Such inaction and PERB’s response to the complainant in the 2011 discrimination case led Mr. Harris to believe the board was waiving the residency requirement because his position is “hard to fill.”

The D.C. Government Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act of 1978 established residency requirements for mayoral appointees. The Times first reported on Mr. Harris‘ residency status on May 9, which according to the letters prompted the board to grant him 75 days to move into the District.

When ordered by the board to show cause as to why he had not moved into the District or forfeited his position sooner, as D.C. law requires, he raised the issue of discriminatory conduct, about which he had previously sought the advice of legal counsel, according to his resignation letter and response to the order.

He resigned that same day.

“The board knew all the time that I lived in Virginia, and I regularly reminded them of it,” Mr. Harris told The Times. “And I have documentation that shows it. It’s preposterous for anyone to say that they were looking at me as having violated any city law, or that I engaged in any covert or illegal activity.

“If there’s any malfeasance, or nonfeasance, it’s on the board’s part for not having asked me to move into D.C. sooner,” he said. “If they wanted me to live in the District, they should’ve asked me sooner.”

Mr. Harris added that no city agency, including the Office of the Attorney General, would have jurisdiction to investigate his residency status. The only recourse the District has with respect to PERB, he said, is that Mayor Vincent C. Gray has the power to appoint board members and seek their dismissal. Mr. Gray’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Harris, a black Republican, states in his resignation letter to PERB Chairperson Wynter Allen that during an executive session on Nov. 8, board members Don Wasserman and Ann Hoffman “expressed their displeasure” that he had hired Erin Wilcox, a white female who previously worked for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and was a law clerk with the Koch Fellowship Program at the conservative Institute for Justice, because she was “perceived as being conservative or politically right-of-center.”

“‘Somebody with a resume like hers doesn’t belong here and … should never work here,’” Ms. Hoffman declared, according to the letter.

A review of Ms. Wilcox’s resume shows that she also interned with the Federal Public Defender and the National Labor Relations Board.

During a different executive session, when Mr. Harris mentioned that Ms. Wilcox may take leave because she was pregnant, Mr. Wasserman allegedly replied, “Good, maybe we can get rid of her that way,” according to the letter.

The letter further states that Mr. Wasserman similarly demanded that Mr. Harris “refrain from hiring white men” when filling open attorney-adviser positions at PERB, which has jurisdiction over labor-management disputes that can affect up to 25,000 city employees.

Mr. Harris, a former deputy chief of employment litigation in the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, stated in his letter that he was offended on multiple other occasions, including when Mr. Wasserman would “gleefully” agree with Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s infamous remark that the Romney-Ryan presidential ticket would “put y’all back in chains,” and when Ms. Hoffman commented that “The military is full of people belonging to white supremacist groups.”

Ms. Hoffman did not respond to requests for comment and Mr. Wasserman referred questions to PERB’s legal counsel.

“I vehemently opposed those illegal, unconstitutional and discriminatory comments and hiring demands,” Mr. Harris‘ letter states. When asked to comment on the allegations, Mr. Harris replied, “I think the letter speaks for itself.”

After the Nov. 8 executive session, Mr. Harris sought advice from PERB General Counsel Keturah Denise Harley, according to a memo obtained by The Times. In her extensively documented legal memo, Ms. Harley concluded that “it is intrinsically illegal for the board to consider hiring or not hiring a potential employee because of their race.”

“It is illegal and discriminatory for Board Members Wasserman and Hoffman to request that the executive director avoid hiring an employee on the basis of their possible political affiliation,” the memo continues.

In light of Mr. Harris‘ resignation, Ms. Harley is acting executive director of PERB. She, too, does not reside in the District.

Ms. Harley said she is not required to live in the District, but said that that PERB is conducting an internal investigation with regards to Mr. Harris‘ allegations of discrimination.

Of Mr. Harris‘ residency status, she said he informed the board on April 30 that he lived in Virginia, and that after he responded to the board’s order to show cause he resigned. “The board is concerned with residency laws because it’s important,” she said.

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