After months of refusals to disclose verifiable information, Mayor Vincent C. Gray last week gave a D.C. Council oversight committee documents showing he hired and gave a raise to campaign consultant Cherita Whiting after she had lied about a felony conviction on a 2010 job application to work for council member Phil Mendelson.
A more recent application - unsigned and undated - purports to show that Ms. Whiting later disclosed her 2001 felony conviction before the administration offered her a $65,000-a-year job as a “special assistant” to the chief of staff at the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR).
That salary came into question recently when the Gray administration reported Ms. Whiting’s salary to the council as being in excess of $98,000, according to budget documents posted on the council’s website. Ms. Whiting was forced to resign in April.
Four months after her name was the first to surface as just one of Mr. Gray’s questionable political hires, Ms. Whiting appeared at an oversight hearing before the Government Operations Committee on Monday and claimed she denied her felony conviction on a March 18, 2010, application for the Mendelson job because she thought a 10-year grace period for disclosing prior felonies had expired.
She entered a guilty plea to federal wire-fraud charges on July 3, 2001, according to a federal court transcript - less than nine years before signing and completing the form, which clearly states: “I understand that a false statement on any part of my application may be grounds for not hiring me, or for firing me after I begin work. I understand that the making of a false statement on this form is punishable by criminal penalties.”
Accompanied by her attorney, A. Scott Bolden, Ms. Whiting testified under oath that she disclosed her conviction on a Jan. 13 job application. A document submitted by the Gray administration to the oversight committee indicates a prior felony along with a typed entry that reads: “Will explain in person.”
However, that application is unsigned and undated, despite a bolded section that reads “YOU MUST SIGN THIS APPLICATION.” Mr. Bolden claimed that his client instead signed and dated a residency form attached to the Jan. 13 job application thinking it was sufficient.
Council member David A. Catania noted that Ms. Whiting signed the correct page of her 2010 application for Mr. Mendelson’s office - though she also made a false statement at that time. He shot down her explanation that she “felt both statements were accurate” because she was approaching the 10-year mark from the date of her conviction. He pointed out that the more recent form purports to provide the truthful answer while the older form clearly provided a false statement.
“It looks like someone checked the box on your behalf,” he said of the recently submitted application that acknowledges her criminal record.
Ms. Whiting’s resume boasts experience as a payroll manager, billing manager, human resources manager and community outreach director, in addition to advanced computer skills and dozens of professional and community activities. She is a former advisory neighborhood commissioner, though she testified that she could not recall how many terms she served.
Before her federal conviction in 2001, for which she was sentenced to 22 months in prison, Ms. Whiting was charged multiple times with fraud, forgery, passing bad checks and theft, according to Maryland court records. In 1994, she pleaded guilty to theft and was placed on home detention and probation. In all, courts have ordered her to pay back more than $150,000 in diverted funds over the years, state and federal records show.
Ms. Whiting emerged as an early and ardent supporter of Mr. Gray during the mayoral campaign, and a fierce opponent of former incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Though she described her campaign activities as self-directed and on a volunteer basis, finance records show the Gray campaign paid her $2,000 in November as a “campaign consultant.”
At the oversight hearing on Monday, Ms. Whiting testified that she left her job with Mr. Mendelson to take a higher salary working for the Gray administration. She said that early in the campaign, she made it known to Mr. Gray’s campaign chairwoman, Lorraine Green, “that I wanted a job.”
Ms. Whiting said she was interviewed on Jan. 13 by Mr. Gray’s chief of staff, Gerri Mason Hall, who was later fired for her role in the Gray administration’s hiring scandal, which has led to the firings or resignations of key staffers and their relatives and spawned investigations by the U.S. attorney’s office and a congressional oversight committee.
She received a letter the next day offering her a $65,000-a-year position as an “excepted service” employee, meaning she was a political appointee who could be fired at any time.
Ms. Whiting’s hiring and her undisclosed felony record were exposed by The Washington Times in February. On Monday, she testified that former Department of Human Resources director Judy Banks asked her to resign effective April 18, and she did so because she didn’t want to continue to be a distraction, and “because when they ask you to resign and you don’t, they’ll go ahead and fire you anyway.”
Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, said it was “reasonable” that Ms. Whiting neglected to sign the mandatory section on her recent job application and expressed concern that she had been treated unfairly “by an administration under siege.”
In March, an email obtained by The Times showed that Mr. Gray was told of Ms. Whitings felony conviction in July when she was still working for Mr. Mendelson and he was upset to hear she had not disclosed it. Mr. Gray told a supporter he was going to confirm the non-disclosure, the email states. Mr. Mendelson acknowledged at the time he was first informed of Ms. Whitings criminal past that same month, and confirmed talking with Mr. Gray about it. But he said he never inquired whether Ms. Whiting lied on her job application.
On Monday, Mr. Mendelson refused to answer questions about how he handled the situation. “It’s a waste of my time,” he said. “You don’t ask clear questions.”
Mr. Gray’s office declined to comment on the matter.
Asked to comment on Ms. Whiting’s behalf, Mr. Bolden said it is clear that both Mr. Mendelson and Mr. Gray “had no problem hiring” Ms. Whiting. He also insisted his client did nothing to warrant a forced resignation.
With regard to the difference between Ms. Whiting’s $65,000 salary and the $98,000 salary the mayor’s office submitted to the council for the 2012 budget, The Times reviewed more than 280 employee listings for DPR and was unable to find any salary discrepancies remotely close to that amount.
DPR Chief of Staff John Stokes confirmed the posting of the $98,0000 figure for the budget, but said Ms. Whiting was paid at the $65,000 annual salary level. He said the agency failed to correct the discrepancy and that the “proper amounts” had since been entered into the payroll system. He said the position is currently vacant.