- The Washington Times - Monday, May 13, 2002

D.C. officials have cited privacy rules in refusing to reveal the status of embattled Fire Chief Ronnie Few and three subordinates he recruited from Georgia, although a look at past disciplinary actions against D.C. officials shows that secrecy in personnel matters is more the exception than the rule.
Chief Few is under investigation for inflating his credentials, and sources say he is expected to resign soon a move he has denied since April 29. Three of his handpicked deputies are under "disciplinary action" perhaps including 30-day suspensions or terminations for the same charge. City officials so far have refused to elaborate on the fates of the three top city public safety officials or Chief Few.
"They are trying to make a case that personnel rules and privacy rights prevent them from talking about them," said Dorothy Brizill, who operates the watchdog Web site DC Watch (https://www.dcwatch. com). "That doesn't hold water. You can easily make the case that in [Mayor Anthony A. Williams] administration, most personnel actions have been made public."
Since the conclusion of a probe by D.C. City Administrator John Koskinen on April 26 into the credentials of Assistant Chief Gary L. Garland, Assistant Chief Marcus R. Anderson and Deputy Chief Bruce A. Cowan, the public has been left to wonder about the fates of Chief Few and his crew.
Mr. Koskinen said appropriate disciplinary action is being taken, but neither he nor other administration officials have provided further detail because of "privacy rights."
"We are prevented from disclosure because of the Federal Personnel Act," said the mayor's spokesman Tony Bullock.
The D.C. Department of Human Resources can release information pertaining only to job title, dates of employment, salary and employee payroll status as of the previous three weeks, spokeswoman Randi Blank said.
"We can't breach confidentiality," she said. "That is all we can say."
But two lawyers familiar with public-records law say the District can withhold personnel information only if city officials can show the privacy violation outweighs the public's right to know about the institutions that serve them.
"The higher ranking the official and the more the conduct goes to the ability of the official to perform, the greater the public interest in disclosure," said Robert Vaughn, a professor of law at American University who specializes in public information law. "It is a balancing act with the law firmly on the side of disclosure."
Mr. Vaughn said that in order to send a message to other employees, officials often make public examples of those fired for misconduct.
Lucy Dalglish, a lawyer and executive director for the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the District's refusal to confirm the status of a public employee is "ridiculous."
"I'd sue them," she said.
The silence surrounding the fates of Chief Few and his three subordinates is unusual. In the three-plus years of Mr. Williams' administration, plenty of D.C. officials who found themselves under fire were protected by their bosses before being suspended, forced to resign or terminated all in the public eye.
When Robert Newman, D.C. Parks and Recreation director, resigned under pressure in October 2000 for inflated credentials and misconduct, the public was kept abreast of all developments regarding his status. Saamir "Sam" Kaiser, general counsel to the D.C. chief financial officer and former D.C. financial control board lawyer, left his post quietly until The Washington Post disclosed his fictitious resume in November. His departure was accompanied by statements from his boss, Natwar Gandhi, D.C. chief financial officer, and former boss Daniel Rezneck, former counsel for the now-defunct control board. Mark Jones, a deputy chief of staff for external affairs for the mayor, was placed on administrative leave without pay for violating personnel rules, city officials announced last spring. He was fired in September.
The list goes on.
But so far, all Mr. Williams has said is that he is disappointed in the chief and deputies for the mistakes on their resumes. No official will say anything publicly about the results of the investigation they have promised to release in order to clear up "errors" in news reports.
D.C. Council members grumbled over the secrecy concerning the fire department.
"The public has a right to know about the investigation and if any actions are taken," said Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat. "The matter should be public because these are public officials and they work for the public."
Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, said the administration is holding Chief Few to a different standard.
"Robert Newman had to go because of resume problems, among other things, so why not Few?"
Council members also expressed concern because it is not clear whether the District has a fire chief and three top deputies running the department not to mention whether the city will have them in the near future.
"The fire department is one of the most critical public agencies," said Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat. "The public needs to be informed over what is going on there and needs to be able to have confidence in it."
But many say the public has lost trust in its fire department.
"Public safety is at the point of being compromised," said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. "If there were a natural disaster, such as the twister in La Plata, a major fire or other disastrous event, who would be in charge? Public safety comes first the mayor and Chief Few need to act now to clear the air and let the public know who is running the department and how it is being effectively managed to ensure and restore public confidence."

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