On a recent weeknight, D.C. Department of Mental Health Director Stephen T. Baron, his arms full of groceries and dry cleaning, encountered a visitor in front of the Capitol Hill row house where he rents a basement apartment.
“How long have you been waiting for me?” he asked a reporter from The Washington Times, who happened by to see whether Mr. Baron — or his roommate, D.C. Lottery boss Irving W. “Buddy” Roogow — were around.
The two D.C. agency directors have a lot in common. They are married to women who live outside the District and they own homes in Maryland, yet they bunk together in a subterranean bachelor pad in Northeast — a direct result of a D.C. law that says such officials must reside in the District.
D.C. officials say both men meet city residency requirements. Yet Maryland property records show that Mr. Roogow and his wife refinanced their Ellicott City home of 31 years in February last year and swore in an affidavit that it was a “principal residence.” Mr. Roogow has told reporters that he had no intention of moving into the District. In November, county authorities said, he voted in Howard County in the general election, with a ballot that included a gambling referendum.
Mr. Baron and his wife granted priority to a new lender on the mortgage of the couple’s Howard County home as recently as August and have applied for a homestead exemption, a tax break reserved for a principal residence.
The situations of Mr. Baron and Mr. Roogow, a modern-day version of “The Odd Couple” — absent the divorces of Oscar and Felix — raise questions about how seriously D.C. officials are about enforcing the residency law.
Renting vs. owning
Appointed in 2006 to lead more than 1,200 employees at the Department of Mental Health, Mr. Baron earns $177,000 annually, according to city records. He has voted in D.C. elections since at least 2008.
His situation — he was recruited from outside the city — is similar to those of other agency heads. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, for example, bought a condominium in the District after living in Silver Spring at the time of his appointment in 2000.
But Mr. Baron and Mr. Roogow rent — a distinction that invites scrutiny. Mr. Baron said he had rented the apartment for some time, while Mr. Roogow moved in only recently. Asked whether Mr. Roogow signed a lease at the pair’s pied-a-terre, Mr. Baron replied, “He certainly has.” Neither Mr. Baron, Mr. Roogow nor their landlord, Todd Gerdes, responded to requests to verify the lease, and Mr. Roogow told The Times that he stays in the District on “various occasions.”
Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier is familiar with the dilemma. She purchased a town house in the Fort Lincoln neighborhood of Northeast in 2007 when she assumed her post and claims a homestead exemption on the property. Although she also co-owns a house in Anne Arundel County that Maryland property records identify as a principal residence receiving the homestead exemption, state officials said the law allows such arrangements if the exemption is claimed not by Chief Lanier but by her co-owner, D.C. police Sgt. James Schaefer.
In fact, Chief Lanier defended the requirement that agency heads live in the District.
“We’re making decisions that impact the residents of the city,” she said, without referring to any specific officials. “It’s been my beef all along when people don’t live here and make those decisions.”
But even Chief Lanier, whose living arrangements were scrutinized by The Times in a May report, draws a distinction between actual and superficial compliance with the District’s residency law.
“You’re welcome to come over and talk to my neighbors or see my dirty dishes,” she offered. “But compared to someone who is renting an apartment, no one would question my residency status.”
The residency requirement
Spelled out in the District of Columbia Government Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act of 1978, the idea behind the city’s residency requirement for Cabinet-level appointees is that officials who lead city agencies need to know firsthand the issues of residents. The rationale got a boost when President Obama drew on his own experience as a D.C. resident to justify his approval of license plates for his presidential limousine with the “Taxation Without Representation” slogan that exemplifies the feelings of alienation of many Washingtonians.
“After living here for four years,” Mr. Obama said, “I’ve become sensitized to the issues and concerns of D.C. residents.”
Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Mayor Vincent C. Gray, said “residency requirements are necessary to ensure that District residents continue to have a voice at the most senior levels of their own government.” He also said the law governing residency “will be enforced to the fullest extent possible.”
In response to inquiries specifically about Mr. Roogow, D.C. officials have alternated between avoidance and deferral of responsibility.
A spokesman for Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan said he considers Mr. Roogow a D.C. resident and referred The Times to the Department of Human Resources for a definition of “principal place of occupancy.”
But the evolution of the residency requirement — and its uneven enforcement — has been a hot topic for decades.
Only a few hundred employees, typically at the highest levels of city government, are required to live in the District. An agency head can get an exemption in rare cases for special circumstances.
More often, agency heads become ensnared in high-profile controversies about what the residency law requires of them. Former Attorney General Peter J. Nickles faced scrutiny for living in Virginia long after he was appointed by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in 2006. In 2002, the D.C. Council became embroiled in a dispute with Inspector General Charles Maddox over how much time he spent at a family home in Prince George’s County.
The flap over Mr. Roogow’s residency began in 2011, when local activist Marie Drissel objected to the fact that the lottery director, appointed in 2009 and earning a salary of $176,000 to lead the 77-employee agency, resided in Maryland while running an operation that since 1982 has raised $1.7 billion to support education, recreation and parks, public safety, housing, and senior and child services in the District.
“There was an initiative by the D.C. Lottery to have Internet gambling in everyone’s home and at hot spots throughout the city with no public notice,” Ms. Drissel said. “I discovered much to my horror that the person about to change the face of D.C. — every neighborhood block by block — lived in Ellicott City, and he said he had no intention of moving.”
Until that time, the office of the chief financial officer, which oversees the lottery, assumed that D.C. law did not apply to the lottery director. But in a Dec. 23, 2011, letter to council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, Mr. Nathan cited a 2008 amendment to the D.C. Lottery Act: “The Executive Director shall be a resident of the District and shall remain a District resident for the duration of his or her employment by the Board. Failure to maintain District residency shall result in a forfeiture of the position.”
Because the chief financial officer’s office did not think the law applied to its personnel, Mr. Roogow was not required to forfeit his position. But he was required to become a resident within six months.
He did not even come close to complying with that edict.
The mayor’s office said the chief financial officer is responsible for policing the lottery director.
David Umansky, spokesman for the office of the chief financial officer, said Mr. Roogow’s wife was being treated for cancer last year and that the office felt it humane to “not press [Mr. Roogow] on these matters.”
Depending on how to characterize a bona fide D.C. resident, he still might be skirting the intent of the law.
In December, Mr. Roogow’s wife answered a midweek call to the lottery director at the couple’s Maryland residence, saying, “He isn’t home right now.” A couple of weeks later, Mr. Roogow answered the phone at his Ellicott City home and feebly explained that he was “visiting his wife,” after arguing that he had satisfied the requirements for D.C. residency, which include registering to vote and obtaining a D.C. driver’s license and tags.
Indeed, Mr. Roogow registered to vote in the District in December — a year after he was given six months to become a resident.
In the scheme of things, officials such as Chief Lanier can point to property ownership and her contribution to the city’s tax base — to say nothing of her exposure to issues that affect D.C. residents — to justify a second home in Maryland.
Even Mr. Baron, who registered to vote and moved into the city upon being appointed, can claim a measure of compliance with D.C. residency law, although he is not just a renter but one who has enabled Mr. Roogow to dress up his arrangement with an apartment lease.
But Mr. Roogow’s case appears less plausible, and his widespread influence as a lottery director irritates people like Ms. Drissel, particularly considering his failure to pay taxes in the District. “There are very few households with adjusted gross income over $100,000 paying D.C. taxes and a highly paid leader who by law should live here should not get away with paying no state income tax,” she said. “This is bad tax policy and bad policy in general.”