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When it comes to bureaucratic warriors, LL will put Catherine Bego up against anyone in this town of directors and chiefs and deputy assistant secretaries.
Bego gave 39 years, nine months, and nine days of her life to the Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration, the branch of the District government devoted to battling alcohol and drug dependency. In that time she battled rampant mismanagement above her while trying to deliver the agency’s day-to-day services. Faced with a mayoral crony as her boss, Bego in 1999 took evidence of his travails to the inspector general. She was demoted and transferred in retaliation, and took her case to federal court. Judge Royce C. Lamberth called her demotion “the stupidest management decision I’ve ever seen.”
Put it this way: Bego’s a survivor.
Until Jan. 22, 2008, that is. That day, APRA chief Tori Fernandez Whitney called Bego, then 65, to her office and told her, “I want to inform you that the D.C. government no longer needs your services.” Bego, who at the time was in charge of faith-based and community-based services, asked for some explanation. She got none; she was told only to sign a letter and leave. “It’s been good working with you,” she says Whitney, 32 at the time, told her as she walked out.
Bego and her longtime attorneys, Robert A.W. Boraks and Stephen C. Leckar, have filed suit again, this time alleging age discrimination in her firing. Their suit also manages to illustrate trends manifesting themselves elsewhere in this government in recent months—for example, the “youth movement” evident in managerial hiring and the emphasis on private businesses as the answer for improving service delivery.
Yet the far more disturbing trend stems from the pure cold-heartedness of the current administration. People like Bego are known in the personnel world as at-will employees, meaning that they can be fired with no explanation. Previous administrations have refrained from exploiting their prerogatives under the law, instead opting to deal with at-will employees like real people. The regime of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, however—not so much.
The face of Fentyism at APRA these days is Whitney, who took the top job in June 2007, after about a two and a half years on the health committee staff at the D.C. Council. At that point, according to Bego’s lawsuit, Whitney’s résumé could be charitably described as thin, with several years spent as a low-level congressional aide and at nonprofit staff jobs—certainly not the “8 years experience applying relevant laws, statutes, and regulations associated with public health programs” that was suggested by the job solicitation. (LL was unable to completely confirm her employment experience aside from the lawsuit and a news release published at the time of her appointment; a résumé furnished by the Fenty administration was redacted to the point of comedy.) Her last boss, At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania, says he “went to bat” for her in late 2006, after she expressed interest in working for the executive branch—including jobs heading APRA or the HIV/AIDS Administration.
Catania vouches for Whitney thusly: “I thought she was, and I know her to be, an incredibly passionate, conscientious, hard-working, determined, focused person….She knew that budget [at APRA] better than anyone, having essentially immersed herself for two years in this particular administration. In my mind, I don’t think the mayor could have found a better change agent.”
Make no mistake that change was on the agenda at APRA—and that it was Catania who set that agenda. “In my experience with APRA,” says Catania, “there had been real reluctance there to move forward on my idea of a superstructure.” By “superstructure,” he means getting the city out of the business of actually delivering care to residents—as APRA does at the city detox clinic on the D.C. General campus—and hiring private providers to do so instead, leaving the agency to license, supervise, and direct their work.
Catania had set the agency on that course as early as spring 2005. As he remembers it, he took a tour of the facility on Good Friday. “Across the board, what I found troubled me. The way in which it was organized and the way it was managed….the infrastructure that I found.” In 2006, the health committee chair inserted a $200,000 earmark to fund a study of APRA’s operations. By the time Whitney took over in June, consultants had swarmed the agency, finding a “Need for Better Program Performance Management” and a “Need to Improve the Work Environment.”
This year’s mayoral budget plan, largely ratified by Catania’s health committee, gives this directive: “APRA will establish a contract with a qualified provider to run the District’s detoxification center and referral and assessment services, eliminating 16 locally funded positions.”
What’s happened at APRA mirrors what’s happened in another portion of Catania’s oversight portfolio—at the Department of Mental Health, whose Community Services Agency is being dismantled to place city clients in the hands of private providers. Like at APRA, the first step was to bring in the consultants. And by the end of 2010, all 4,000 mental health patients served by the city will be looked at by private providers.
According to Bego’s lawsuit and her interviews with LL, Whitney made it clear early on that the old APRA was on its way out. “She came in saying she wanted to reinvigorate APRA, modernize APRA,” Bego remembers, and it soon became clear that Bego and her 39 years of experience weren’t going to be a part of that. In the months after Whitney’s hiring, Bego’s suit alleges, Whitney demoted or fired several longtime employees while shifting job descriptions in order to move another former Catania staffer and campaign aide, Shaun Snyder, and other relative youngsters into top administrative roles.
Bego lasted as long as any of the old guard. In a November meeting shortly after Snyder had started as Whitney’s top assistant and had been handed many of Bego’s job responsibilities, Whitney told Bego she wanted “a more youthful appearance” among the office’s senior staff. “I told her,” Bego says, “youthful appearance will never take the place of seasoned experience.” The next day, she filed an age discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After that, Bego alleges, Whitney spent the next six weeks “trying to provoke me.” She refused to approve Bego’s vacation time. She had her name removed from the directory outside the APRA offices. She had her report to Snyder, 29.
The day after Bego was finally fired, she decided to attend a grant seminar she had helped to organize, held at Gallaudet University—not only because she helped organize it, but because she runs a nonprofit recovery group. As she walked in, she alleges, Whitney and Snyder tried to keep her from entering, even though the event was open to the public. When she tried to register under the auspices of her nonprofit, Whitney summoned security guards. She was eventually admitted, but, she says, “I had been humiliated in the presence of people I had been working with for 39 years.”
Before the end of the seminar, she suffered an anxiety attack. She drove herself to Georgetown University Hospital, she says, and was admitted overnight.
Catania, pleading ignorance, declined to discuss Bego’s allegations regarding what happened inside the agency. Whitney and other mayoral officials declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing litigation.
Bego joins the ranks of “management supervisory service” (MSS) employees who can, and have been, fired from government jobs they’ve long held with no cause. They include Michael Williams, the Department of Parks and Recreation employee fired in February for allegedly interfering in Fenty’s kids’ basketball league—not to mention scads of managers at that department fired last month shortly after the mysterious termination of director Clark Ray.
DPR, in fact, is widely considered to be the latest target of the DMH/APRA strategy. Says Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., “They’re going to attempt to privatize some services. And if you look at what they’re attempting to do, it’s creating a disruption.”
The fact that midlevel managers can be dismissed at will goes back to the control-board era, when lawmakers created the MSS grade to provide “improved accountability, improved performance, and improved caliber of managers and supervisors” by treating them in essentially the same manner as agency heads. But if you’d think such legislation would head off lawsuits from spurned employees, that idea is wrong. In addition to complaints filed by Bego and Williams, at least two other fired MSS employees have filed suit in recent months.
As for the mass DPR firings, Thomas says, “I think they’re in for a class-action suit…The lawsuits are gonna kill us.”
Leckar, Bego’s lawyer, declines to address his own litigation, but he says that “a perverse result of the MSS system has been to provide an incentive for cronies to reward cronies.”
Bego’s suit is currently in front of federal Judge Reggie B. Walton. Last month, according to court documents, Walton reprimanded the District for failing to produce key documents and ordered the parties to begin settlement talks. Bego is requesting reinstatement with back pay and benefits, along with $500,000 in compensatory damages.
Catania says that Whitney has received no reprieve from his vaunted oversight. “I think there’s no question that Tori was handed a very hard deck of cards, and I would give her high marks,” he says. APRA “was long the redheaded stepchild of this government. It had long been a dumping ground for friends of whomever….It’s a work in progress.”
• Friday morning, Fenty provided yet another update on the status of his beloved summer jobs program. Nearly 24,000 kids have signed up, “the highest level of enrollment in decades” with a “record number of job opportunities,” according to a news release.
Fenty has committed to accommodating all comers, even though last year’s program went more than $30 million over budget under a similar lack of constraints.
But the spiritual godfather of D.C. summer jobs has made it clear he doesn’t share Hizzoner’s expansive view of the program.
“I’m not going to participate in this craziness,” says Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, who started the Summer Youth Employment Program as mayor in 1979. It’s widely regarded as one of Barry’s political masterstrokes, engendering almost unanimous and endless goodwill from an entire generation of Washingtonians.
Barry, however, is not sold on Fenty’s plans, he tells LL.
For one thing, through his council committee, he has proposed cutting $20 million from Fenty’s proposed $42.9 million budget for the 2010 program. To do that, he recommends that the program be scaled back from 10 weeks to 6 weeks, that registrations close on April 1 rather than continue through the summer, and that participation be capped at 21,000.
So what’s Mr. Summer Jobs doing foiling the employment ambitions of his successor? Well, it’s just the latest example of Barry foiling, or at least attempting to foil, pet Fenty initiatives.
As far as this year’s program goes, Barry demands a spending plan. Two weeks ago, Fenty announced he was seeking to double the $21 million he’d originally budgeted. To do that, he’s asking the council to tap a “community benefit fund” associated with the Nationals Park authorization, though no spending plan has yet to be submitted.
“You’re asking for trouble,” Barry tells LL—intimating a tough council fight to get the supplemental spending approved.
Barry’s objections come at the same time that the Brookings Institute’s Greater Washington Research program has raised questions about summer jobs—an effort providing “uncertain, uneven, and sometimes really bad outcomes”—sucking up the vast majority of the local dollars spent on employment programs in the city.
No matter what happens with the funding, Barry says he vows to hold weekly oversight hearings into the operations of the program—all 10 weeks of the program, “even during the council recess.”
“I’m gonna put pressure on him,” Barry says of Fenty. “I’m gonna blow the whistle if it ain’t right.”
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