- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 7, 2011

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s former chief of staff testified Thursday that she made errors in hiring for the administration and allowed informal standards to guide how much appointees were paid.

“Along the way, I made mistakes, including failure to pay sufficient attention to the background process,” Gerri Mason Hall, who was fired last month, told the D.C. Council Committee on Government Operations and the Environment.

Ms. Hall, however, said she has no evidence to suggest an arrangement between the mayor and Sulaimon Brown, who was fired from a $110,000-a-year D.C. government job before creating shock waves last month by claiming he received the job and cash payments to stay in last year’s mayor’s race and badmouth incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

She said she called Mr. Brown “a special case” in emails before his hiring because of his aggressive behavior and pursuit of the mayor, which caused a distraction. She decided to sit down with him over possible employment.

“Did the mayor know you were taking these steps?” asked council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the government operations committee.

“No,” she said, adding later, “Eventually a full background check was done.”

Ms. Hall testified she has a note that suggests Gray confidante Lorraine A. Green instructed her in late December to discuss Mr. Brown with the mayor in regard to a position for him in the administration. Ms. Hall said she cannot recall the exact conversation.

Mr. Brown, though, managed to hijack the spotlight once again without opening his mouth - at least not in the right place. He briefly entered the chamber during the hearing before departing and delivering a rant in the lobby of the John A. Wilson Building.

Mr. Brown had been the most anticipated witness at a second hearing Thursday on Mr. Gray’s personnel practices, which have been dogged by allegations of nepotism and resulted in investigations by local and federal officials and agencies.

“I would not be a part of the witch hunt in there,” Mr. Brown said, moments before he was asked to report for testimony.

Mr. Brown instead made unsubstantiated claims that Mrs. Cheh and council member David A. Catania, who has aggressively questioned witnesses, are engaged in cronyism and not suitable to sit on the committee looking into Mr. Gray’s practices.

“They’re lawyers, they should know better.” he said, holding court over a circle of reporters. “That’s illegal, what they’re doing.”

His departure prompted Mrs. Cheh to sign a subpoena in the hallway during a break in testimony at the marathon hearing.

Mrs. Cheh said Mr. Brown is making up accusations to avoid testifying. Asked if she and Mr. Brown had mutual friends that might seek jobs in city government, she said, “I hope not.”

The process

The nine witnesses who did appear Thursday drew a slew of reporters, city employees and other interested parties to the first-floor hearing room in city hall.

Mr. Catania, at-large independent, zeroed in on the placement of Ms. Hall’s son in a job at the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. Ms. Hall, the former Gray chief of staff, said she kept her son’s hiring at “arms-length,” yet spoke to former interim personnel director Judy Banks about it.

Mr. Catania said Ms. Hall gave Ms. Banks a large raise, a salary of $180,000 that exceeded the legal limit, and then handed over her son’s resume.

“I relied on the process. I didn’t go to an agency head,” Ms. Hall said.

“There was no process,” Mr. Catania said, noting there was no job interview.

Other testimony cast a sympathetic light on the hiring of several Cabinet members’ children, who later resigned under scrutiny. In addition to them was Leslie Green, the daughter of Ms. Green, who served as the chairman of the mayor’s campaign and transition team but was not a government employee.

Outside the hearing, Mrs. Cheh noted the “children” offered candid testimony and appeared to be highly educated and qualified.

“I’m at least glad they had a chance to tell their story,” Mrs. Cheh said.

But testimony from higher-level officials, notably Rochelle Webb, intrigued the committee as it delved into the executive’s hiring practices.

Ms. Webb, the mayor’s first nominee to lead the Department of Employment Services (DOES), accused the administration of taking away her job without notice because she might provide damaging testimony before the committee.

Ms. Webb said it was Ms. Banks who asked Fire and Emergency Medical Services Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe to find a job for her son, Brandon, and not the other way around.

Ms. Webb also testified she asked for $150,000 in salary and $10,000 in relocation expenses, but received a $165,000 salary and no cap on relocation funds.

“It was one of the best surprises I’ve received,” Ms. Webb said.

Ms. Webb testified that mounting scrutiny about her use of city dollars and management practices were used as a pretext to get rid of her.

Mr. Catania noted that witness intimidation is a crime.

“That’s a very serious allegation,” he said.

But council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, said his committee might have held up Ms. Webb’s confirmation for reasons related to performance and decision-making.

Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, also said there may be more to the story, considering her monthlong stay at the W Hotel on the city’s dime and use of a personal driver during her move from Arizona - and the hiring of out-of-state staff and her own son to a city job.

“I think you had a part in that, don’t you think?”

“No, I don’t,” Ms. Webb said.

Additional witnesses

Mrs. Cheh plans to hold more hearings to accommodate other witnesses’ schedules.

Howard Brooks, who Mr. Brown labeled as the bagman who provided payments during the campaign, is being interviewed by the U.S. attorney’s office and will not appear before Mrs. Cheh’s committee until they are done with him.

Ms. Green will appear at a later hearing along with Ms. Banks, the human resources official who had testified at the March 28 hearing and is being recalled.

Mr. Webb, son of the former interim DOES director, was the first of nine witnesses to address the committee. The Arizona resident said he applied for at least three D.C. jobs back in August and September but never heard anything.

Months later, when he passed his resume to human resources through his mother, he got an offer letter the next day for a position as special assistant to the fire chief.

“You would not have been hired if it were not for your mother,” Mr. Catania said. “That is my view.”

Mr. Catania said the hearing is not meant to denigrate Mr. Webb personally or his qualifications but to explore possible nepotism in hiring practices.

“I was told by strategy that I should resign,” Mr. Webb said, because “the mayor couldn’t take another political hit.”

Mr. Catania noted that Mr. Webb sent his resume to his mother shortly after 6 p.m. on Jan. 10. Ms. Webb sent the resume the next morning at 8:15 a.m. to Ms. Banks in human resources with the heading, “as we discussed.”

Three minutes later, Ms. Banks wrote back to say Mr. Webb had the job.

“We don’t operate that fast,” Mr. Catania said of the city government.

Mr. Webb said he resigned with the understanding he would get a job later. He said the promise of a job dissipated as his resignation date got closer.

Mr. Webb said he felt misled during the ordeal.

Mr. Catania took the lead in pressing for answers and signs of cronyism, while council members Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat, and Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, suggested the scrutiny had gotten out of hand for little reason. Mr. Barry, even before Mr. Brown’s dramatic entrance into the chamber, called the proceedings a “witch hunt.”

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