- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A trio of D.C. Council members signaled their intent Wednesday to re-examine the $38 million D.C. Lottery contract and a plan to launch the nation’s first online poker system, an idea promoted by council member Michael A. Brown, at-large independent, and approved without public discussion in a supplemental budget bill in December.

Their remarks were made after The Washington Times reported Tuesday that Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby has failed to act on a request from two former Cabinet officials to investigate irregularities in the underlying lottery contract and the oversight activities of Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Natwar M. Gandhi.

The inspector general revelations and council reaction raise new questions about where Mr. Brown will find support when the issue gets aired publicly this fall.

“The inspector general should be doing an investigation,” council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, said of the request by former Chief Procurement Officer David P. Gragan and former Attorney General Peter J. Nickles, who raised concerns in July 2010 of an irregular contract approval and vetting process that handed a 51 percent stake in the lottery to a local businessman who never participated in the competitive bidding process.

“If the inspector general didn’t do his job, then it’s a problem,” said Mr. Evans, chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, which has oversight of the lottery and the CFO’s office. Mr. Evans said he will hold another hearing on online poker when the council reconvenes this month.

Council member Muriel Bowser, a Ward 4 Democrat who chairs the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment, which has oversight of the Office of the Inspector General, and who also serves on the finance committee, said a hearing should not be limited to online poker.

“People are concerned about the lottery procurement, period,” she said. “I’ve always been uncomfortable with the contract. If Mr. Gragan said it was highly unusual the way it was passed, then I agree.”

Asked whether she had concerns about the inspector general, Ms. Bowser replied, “It’s legitimate to ask what he has done. People are concerned that the city’s enforcement mechanisms are not enforcing effectively. The public needs to have confidence in those responsible for enforcing regulations, rules and ethics.”

Of the online poker proposal being promoted by Mr. Brown, she added, “It was not responsible to pass it in a supplemental budget bill without public conversation. It definitely was a sleight of hand.”

Mr. Brown, who in recent weeks has drawn criticism for slipping the poker provision into the budget bill and failing to disclose earnings from a firm with an interest in online gambling, did not respond to requests for comment.

The controversy over online poker recently prompted council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, to pledge to introduce legislation to repeal the measure. On Wednesday, he said he has not taken a position for or against online poker but his main concern is that “for something like gambling, we really must have a public vetting process.”

“This could have substantial impact, so there needs to be a normal legislative process and an opportunity for residents to be heard,” he said. “We need a full committee report on this.”

Mr. Wells declined to comment on the inspector general.

The prospect of committee hearings, much less a repeal measure, coupled with lottery contract irregularities and controversy surrounding online poker, was enough to send numerous council members running for cover this week.

“He doesn’t want to talk about it,” said Denise Tolliver, chief of staff to council member Phil Mendelson, an at-large Democrat who voted against the lottery contract in 2009. “I don’t think he’s changed his mind.”

“No comment,” said newly elected council member Vincent Orange, an at-large Democrat who barely broke stride while retreating from a reporter in the John A. Wilson Building lobby.

A representative for council member Yvette Alexander said the Ward 7 Democrat, who had a fundraiser hosted for her last year by the local lottery partner, “will review the situation before she comments.”

Council member Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat and an ally of Ms. Alexander’s and Mr. Brown’s who is under federal investigation and recently agreed to refund more than $300,000 he raised to promote youth sports, said he hadn’t formulated any thoughts on the lottery contract.

Asked whether he had concerns about the inspector general, he replied, “It’s not something I’m interested in.”

Earlier this week, Mr. Evans said that, like Mr. Wells, he has not taken a position for or against online poker. But he is sure of one thing, he said: “It should have been introduced as a free-standing bill; then we would have had the necessary hearings. Since that’s not what happened, we’re trying to play catch-up by holding hearings after the fact.”

Mr. Evans did not, however, commit to a review of the inspector general, which he said falls to the government operations committee chaired by Ms. Bowser.

The inspector general was criticized this week after Mr. Gragan told The Times that he and Mr. Nickles saw “anomalies” in the lottery contract that he has not seen in 18 years as a procurement officer but that he had no indication if an investigation was begun.

“This is shocking,” said Mr. Nickles, adding that while still in office he provided leads to the inspector general and was personally assured of an expedited and thorough investigation. “If the inspector general has not interviewed the people whose names I provided, then he ought to be fired.”

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