Mary Cheh
Mary Cheh Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Like some kind of Wilson Building Forrest Gump, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh always seems to be around when there’s a mayoral scandal. Cheh helped run an investigation into Mayor Adrian Fenty’s frat brothers’ contracting woes and the bizarre saga of a city fire truck bound for the Dominican Republic.

Then, as Vince Gray’s reign began, Cheh ran a hearing in which she peppered bizarre former mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown with questions about how he landed an administration job. The biggest headline that day may have been that Brown refused to remove his sunglasses, but the hearing helped launch the federal investigation that went on to doom Gray’s mayoralty. 

Now Mayor Muriel Bowser may have to endure a Cheh inquisition of her own. Cheh and the mayor have already tussled over everything from the mayor’s proposed all boy’s public school to Cheh’s early opposition to FreshPAC, the Bowser-aligned Super PAC that fizzled under public scrutiny last year. 

In her latest clash with the mayor, Cheh plans to investigate a big-dollar contracting controversy at the District’s Department of General Services that resulted in the resignation of the agency’s chief and the exit of two other top brass, which WAMU first reported. 

At the center of the ugly episode is the classic poster child of local government dysfunction, the city’s Certified Business Enterprise program. CBE status is meant to give local, often minority-owned businesses an advantage in contract bidding. But when CBE-certified District mega-contractor and Bowser campaign donor Fort Myer Construction lost out on two bids, City Administrator Rashad Young stepped in. 

Young directed DGS director Chris Weaver to fire the two staffers who had awarded the contracts to a significantly lower bidder. Weaver resigned shortly thereafter.

In his Aug. 12 resignation letter, Weaver said he was leaving the agency for personal reasons. But Cheh, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment, isn’t buying it. 

“I don’t believe that’s true,” Cheh says. “I believe it had everything to do with the people being fired.”

To turn the case into an investigative hearing and win subpoena power, though, Cheh will need to convince a majority of her committee colleagues. That might be a tough sell with Bowser-aligned councilmembers like Ward 2’s Jack Evans and Ward 4’s Brandon Todd. Also on the committee are Ward 5’s Kenyan McDuffie and Ward 6’s Charles Allen. (McDuffie said in a statement that he’ll support a subpoena powers vote if it’s necessary for the investigation).

Even if Cheh can’t subpoena witnesses, she has other ways to try to uncover what happened. “Whoever I get to come, I will put them under oath,” she says. 

Bowser’s administration wants to frame the DGS shake-up as a case of employees run amok. In a Monday WAMU interview, Young claimed that department’s contracting system, which gave CBEs less of an advantage in bidding, was “indefensible.” Similarly, Bowser spokesman Rob Hawkins said in a statement that the administration is eager for a hearing on “our intolerance for those who seek to undermine local and minority businesses.”

For now, Cheh says she’s just asking questions.

“We have some mechanism to clear the air,” Cheh says. “I never wanted the Sulaimon Brown thing. I never wanted to investigate the craziness with the fire truck.”

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