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At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds recently crossed a line that even Republicans during the impeachment hearings wouldn’t breach.
During a public hearing over which she presided, Bonds outed a whistleblower who identified potential political favoritism in the selection process for housing development projects. Tens of millions of dollars from the Housing Production Trust Fund, one of the District’s primary tools for creating and preserving affordable housing, were on the line.
From the dais, Bonds said the whistleblower’s name and flashed a document identifying them in front of Department of Housing and Community Development Director Polly Donaldson, one of the officials accused of carrying out the political favors.
“What we have before us is a document that was, and I don’t know how I came about it, but because it’s to you, maybe you actually gave it to me?” Bonds asked Donaldson.
“I’m not familiar with that document,” Donaldson responded, firmly.
“You’re not?” Bonds asked.
“Oh the uh, the um, right,” Donaldson stammered.
Bonds went on to express her concern not about the alleged corruption of the public official sitting in front of her, but about the fact that an internal document had somehow been leaked.
Bonds asked Donaldson about the “rules” and the “process” that govern the release of such materials. Donaldson told Bonds that the documents are expected to stay within the agency.
Bonds’ incredible violation of an essential protection for whistleblowers, meant to ensure a government free of corruption, went unnoticed, or at least unreported, until now. LL will admit that he missed it the first time around, but his ears perked up when D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson referenced the incident in vague terms during an oversight hearing two weeks ago. Even then, the auditor was kind enough not to mention Bonds by name.
“Public officials should take care with these things,” Patterson tells LL. “Especially when whistleblowers and their role is all over the national press. It would be good counsel for everyone in local government to be mindful of as well.”
LL was not in the room when Bonds identified a person who exposed potentially unethical behavior despite fearing for their job, their career, and possibly their safety. A link to the video of the hearing has been scrubbed from the Council’s website, but LL found a copy, and there is some question in his mind as to whether Bonds intended to out the whistleblower.
In the video, Bonds at first appears oblivious as she blurts out the whistleblower’s name. At one point she says Donaldson gave her the document that she held up from the dais, and later says she got it from another source.
Shortly after the hearing, the whistleblower emailed Bonds, scolding her for revealing their identity and writing that they “made this complaint in spite of my fear of serious retaliation.”
The whistleblower also took exception to Bonds’ implication during the hearing that the whistleblower leaked internal documents to the public.
“I had and have nothing to gain by filing an Ethics Complaint against [the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development] or [the Department of Housing and Community Development],” the whistleblower wrote. “I filed the complaint and have availed myself to questions from appropriate public bodies who are working to bring the complaint to resolution because I believe that was and is my ethical duty. And I have done so at the expense of meaningful professional relationships and now potentially at the expense of my career and personal and familial safety.”
Bonds replied that she was unaware that the document and the person she named were part of a confidential whistleblower complaint.
“In the event I was aware or made aware of your ethics filing, the document would not have been referenced,” Bonds wrote in a letter to the whistleblower. “I am surprised and saddened by your e-mail and offer my extreme apologies.”
LL is not completely satisfied by Bonds’ explanation. Bonds scheduled the hearing in question in order to discuss two pieces of legislation, one of which directly relates to a D.C. auditor’s report that stems from the whistleblower’s complaint. (The pertinent bill was introduced before the whistleblower filed their complaint.)
The auditor’s report confirms the whistleblower’s concerns that Donaldson deviated from recommendations of high-level staff in her agency and awarded funds to low-ranked (and in one case, the lowest-ranked) proposals.
Project rankings are based on criteria spelled out in a request for proposal. The auditor’s report notes that Donaldson’s discretionary decisions “run counter to the goal stated in the RFP,” and “moreover, the officials’ decisions go against DHCD’s goal of placing ‘much greater emphasis on 30 and 50 percent of the area median family income … units.’”
Bonds acknowledged the May 30 auditor’s report during the hearing and that the documents she waved around willy-nilly were a part of it, shortly after blurting out the whistleblower’s name. Although Patterson writes that she used “confidential information” shared with her office to produce the report, she does not explicitly mention a whistleblower’s complaint.
Patterson says she doesn’t believe Bonds realized at the time that she was outing a whistleblower, though other D.C. government employees have, on background, suggested otherwise.
LL would be remiss if he failed to note a rather cynical observation: With affordable housing a major priority for Mayor Muriel Bowser, the whistleblower’s complaint and subsequent auditor’s reports were no doubt embarrassing for Herronor’s administration, and Bonds is a reliable ally to the mayor. Bonds did not respond to LL’s request for comment.
D.C. law gives whistleblowers the right to sue supervisors who retaliate against them, but the law may not extend to councilmembers. Either way, the question of whether Bonds was truly unaware, or whether she outed a whistleblower intentionally puts her actions on a spectrum that starts at recklessness and ends at malice.
The whistleblower first filed an explosive complaint with the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability in June 2018. In it, they alleged that former Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner and Director of Real Estate Sarosh Olpadwala leaned on DHCD Director Donaldson and her deputy, Allison Ladd, to steer government funding to a project proposal from a politically connected developer. (Ladd has since left the D.C. government to serve as director of housing development in Newark, New Jersey. Kenner also left the District government for a job at Amazon.)
In an emailed statement from a DHCD spokesperson, Donaldson says her agency followed all laws in the decision-making process. Olpadwala writes in an email that he does not direct Housing Production Trust Fund dollars, but that he works closely with Donaldson “on many projects in DHCD’s, DMPED’s and other District government portfolios.” Ladd and Kenner did not respond to LL’s messages seeking comment.
The whistleblower’s complaint describes a conversation with Donaldson and Ladd in which the whistleblower pointed out concerns with the lowest-scoring proposal from MRP Realty and Taylor Adams Associates. David Jannarone, a former DHCD and DMPED employee, is a managing partner at Taylor Adams. Jannarone didn’t respond to an email asking for comment.
The whistleblower writes in their complaint that Donaldson “appeared to lament the lack of effort put forth” in Jannarone’s proposal, when Ladd turned to her and said, “We don’t have a choice.”
Even though Jannarone’s proposal was ranked 20 out of 20, his company received more than $100,000 annually to subsidize five units of affordable housing for very-low-income residents. The Council also approved a $16 million Housing Production Trust Fund loan for the project.
Despite Donaldson’s questionable decision, Patterson could not find evidence in internal emails of a scheme to steer money toward Jannarone.
“This means that if there was such pressure brought to bear, it was not conducted over D.C. government email,” Patterson testified at a recent committee hearing.
The auditor’s report found that Donaldson’s departure from evaluators’ recommendations resulted in 353 fewer total units; 95 fewer units dedicated for residents who make up to 30 percent of the area’s median income; 222 fewer units dedicated for residents who make up to 50 percent of the area’s median income; and 83 fewer permanent supportive housing units for people trying to escape homelessness.
Donaldson has defended her decision, telling the auditor that the unexpected availability of 100 rent supplement vouchers “was a primary driver of my decision to modify the recommendations made by my staff.”
“No one project looks like another, and so even doing comparisons of projects, saying ‘is the senior housing project better than the homeless housing project,’ those kind of comparisons are not made,” Donaldson said at a recent housing committee hearing. “And what I go for is particularly looking at the maximum number of units because of the great need and looking to make sure we are maximizing the resources we have available.”
The whistleblower may have submitted their complaint in June 2018, just one day after Mayor Bowser announced a $103 million investment in affordable housing, but the agency responsible for investigating it didn’t seem to care until a year later.
A second D.C. auditor’s report, published in October, lays out a timeline showing BEGA’s repeatedly failing to investigate. Despite two complaints from the whistleblower, a referral from the Office of the Inspector General, and a reminder from a Council staffer, the complaint sat unexamined. Patterson’s report also accuses the director of government ethics, Brent Wolfingbarger, of making false statements about the status of the complaint to the ethics board.
During a recent committee hearing, Wolfingbarger could not explain why BEGA failed to investigate the complaint for a year. But he did repeatedly mock the auditor’s investigation as a “so-called ‘very focused review,’” called the report inaccurate, and complained about the auditor’s investigatory tactics.
Wolfingbarger took exception to Patterson’s accusation that he lied to BEGA and denied doing so. He testified that BEGA has finally opened an investigation into the whistleblower’s complaint, and acknowledged that BEGA did, in fact, screw up, as the auditor pointed out.
At least he didn’t name the individual.
Update: This article has been updated to include information about the $16 million HPTF loan for David Jannarone’s housing development.