- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The former director of the D.C. Department of Employment Services says she was fired recently because, in part, she expressed concerns that the District was improperly funding a jobs program that caters mostly to ex-offenders.

Rochelle Webb, who lost her job April 1 in the firestorm over Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s political hires, told The Washington Times on Monday that two days before she was fired, she advised a deputy mayor that Project Empowerment, a program that helps D.C. residents find jobs, was $5 million over budget because it had been funded inappropriately through the use of workers’ compensation funds.

Ms. Webb, an Arizona transplant, testified last week at a D.C. committee hearing that the so-called budget gap was her primary reason for firing program director Charles Jones, who told The Times that he was not given a reason for his termination in February and had no input in the budget process.

Project Empowerment data obtained by The Times shows that Mr. Jones met or exceeded the city’s goals for placing program participants in jobs in each of the past six fiscal years.

In addressing her concerns about what she says was Project Empowerment’s looming budget dilemma, Ms. Webb got caught up trying to navigate policy conflicts among city leaders while evaluating the role of a popular program director in light of input from a mayoral adviser who was critical of the program.

The council hearing exposed a policy disagreement between some of Ms. Webb’s detractors and Mr. Gray over whether to outsource Project Empowerment to private contractors. Ms. Webb testified that it was the mayor’s vision to outsource the program, but Council Member Jim Graham said he supported the way Mr. Jones was running it. Ms. Webb testified that Mr. Gray told her not to worry about such policy differences.

On Tuesday, Mr. Graham said he would be addressing his policy differences with the mayor, but that he was not enthusiastic about Ms. Webb’s “substantive positions” or her communications style - calling her “a bull in a china shop.”

Mr. Graham also said he does not recall Ms. Webb talking with him in any detail about the program’s budget issues, as she claimed.

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown, another program supporter who reportedly was unhappy to see Mr. Jones fired, did not return a call for comment.

Ms. Webb said she alone made the decision to fire Mr. Jones based on budget concerns she brought to the attention of the Gray administration. She said she received no negative feedback on the decision. She also said that a former corrections official, Rahim Jenkins, a member of Mr. Gray’s transition team, told her he thought Mr. Jones was not doing a good job, and his view reflected that of the mayor’s office.

“That program wasn’t working. The administration was interested in my input because of my background,” said Mr. Jenkins, who has a private consulting company and has served as an informal policy adviser to the mayor’s office.

Ms. Webb said she sent an email in late March to Deputy Mayor Victor L. Hoskins, who oversees economic development, and warned him of “dire budget consequences” for Project Empowerment as a result of the inappropriate use of workers’ compensation funds.

Two days later, as controversy swirled around the Gray administration’s political hires, Ms. Webb was fired.

During an interview at a Northwest D.C. cafe Monday, Ms. Webb said a Department of Employment Services employee originally brought the budget issue to her attention soon after she was hired. The employee told her the Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, a key partner with Project Empowerment, was requesting a credit for funds spent improperly from an employers’ shared risk pool that the agency had tapped to fill budget gaps.

Metro officials did not return a call for comment.

Ms. Webb said she brought the matter to the attention of Renee McPhatter, general counsel to the employment services agency, who passed Ms. Webb’s concerns along to Brian K. Flowers, general counsel to the mayor’s office. Neither Ms. McPhatter nor Mr. Flowers returned a call for comment.

Ms. Webb said she also informed D.C. Budget Director Eric Goulet and met with D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi to discuss the matter. She said Mr. Gandhi told her the fiscal 2012 budget could address her concerns and that as director she could address the issue in the 2011 budget. Current action could require a supplemental budget measure to cover more than $5 million in funds already committed, she said, or risk the program not meeting its payroll obligations.

Mr. Gandhi’s office said in an email that those are policy decisions for the employment services agency, the mayor and the council.

The mayor’s office did not respond directly to questions for this article. But Department of Employment Services spokesman Neville Waters said Mr. Gray “out of an abundance of caution” has made arrangements to shift Project Empowerment funding away from workers’ compensation funds for the current fiscal year while the practice undergoes legal review. The 2012 budget for the program will not rely at all on workers’ compensation funds, he said.

“They didn’t want to fix it for FY 2011, and Metro wanted their money back, so I persisted,” Ms. Webb said. “The mayor when he hired me said he wanted honesty and integrity.”

Council member Michael A. Brown, at-large independent who oversees the employment services agency, said Project Empowerment was doing a good job and should be preserved. He declined to comment on Ms. Webb’s decision to fire Mr. Jones and said his committee is still studying the budget issue.

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