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Michael Williams says he’s a by-the-book kind of guy. Always has been.
“I have suspended organizations, I have suspended coaches, I have forfeited ballgames,” the soft-spoken Williams says in the kitchen of his Michigan Park home. “Because one of my major responsibilities is to protect the integrity of the league.”
Make that “was.” Williams, 60, who spent some 28 years in city service, was fired on Feb. 23 from his job as a top manager in the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR). As associate director for athletic programs, Williams was essentially in charge of running all the rec sports leagues in the city, serving thousands of youth and adults.
Two of those thousands were Andrew and Matthew Fenty, the 9-year-old twin sons of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Earlier this year, both were on a DPR youth basketball team based out of Emery Recreation Center, a gleaming facility on upper Georgia Avenue.
To hear Williams tell it, the end of his career in District government came when the Fenty kids and their powerful dad met his penchant for playing by the rules. Williams told his story [WMV, forward to 2:32:00] to a D.C. Council committee last month, and, this week, he is filing a lawsuit against Fenty, DPR Director Clark E. Ray, and the District government alleging defamation and retaliation under D.C.’s whistleblower protection statute.
The conflict, according to Williams’ account, began less than two weeks before he was fired. Williams was informed by a staffer that a situation was brewing down at Emery—that parents had lodged complaints that the Fenty kids were playing in the wrong league. The issue had to do with age: The Fenty boys were playing in Parks and Rec’s Pee Wee league, which is for those who are 8 and under. The next level, the Ponys, is for the 10-and-under cohort. The Fenty kids were cutting it close—their ninth birthdays were less than a month from the official league cutoff date of April 5—but the rules were clear: The kids had to play in the Ponys, not the Pee Wees.
It’s a touchy issue for a parent. If your kids happen to be born at the wrong time of year, they can end up playing against kids a year older—and a year bigger and stronger. So it’s not uncommon to have parents angling to keep their kids in a lower bracket and to have parents of other kids grumpy that someone else’s 9-year-old is dominating their 6-year-old.
Williams’ attitude toward those conflicts is simple, he says: You gotta follow the rules, no exceptions. It’s the only way, he says, to prevent chaos, a mess of exceptions that leaves no one happy. That’s a perspective he developed in more than six years running sports leagues, first at DPR, then for three years at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington. He came back to Parks and Rec early last year after Ray asked him to serve as athletic director, a $98,000-a-year position.
As a seasoned bureaucratic warrior, Williams says he knew he was courting disaster as soon as he heard that Hizzoner’s kids were involved. “I thought, ‘This is in our lap,’” he says. “We all felt like we were being set up. We’re left out here.” So he did something he doesn’t usually do: Nothing. Maybe this will just work itself out, he thought.
Two days later, on Friday the 13th, he heard more complaints had been lodged. So he called Sean Conley, an employee at DPR headquarters said to be close to Fenty. Williams says he asked Conley if his “friend” knew about the hoops situation. Conley said he did and that Ray was aware of the issue, too.
Williams says he then called Ray, who confirmed that he was aware of the situation. But the DPR director hesitated to bring the matter up with his boss, because he and his family were about to leave for a vacation—the infamous trip to Dubai, it turned out. Ray told Williams that he would consult the mayoral communications office on how to handle the matter.
It didn’t come up again until the following Tuesday, when the DPR headquarters building on 16th Street NW was evacuated after reports of a gas leak. Outside, Williams saw Ray and went to ask him if he’d heard anything further on the Fenty kids. “They’re going to play,” Ray allegedly “snarled” at him.
Another D.C. government official would have gotten the message at this point, but Williams says he just couldn’t have these kids flouting the rules. He turned to back channels; Williams knows a person who he describes only as a “close associate” of Fenty. He told this person about the situation, and the person agreed to contact Fenty in Dubai that evening to work out a solution.
No solution was in the offing: The next day, the “close associate” told Williams that he’d been “cussed out” by Hizzoner.
The next day, Williams’ problem was compounded. Not only is the guy a stickler for following the rules, he’s also a stickler for paperwork. Kids in DPR leagues are supposed to have a registration form and liability waiver filled out with full address, an emergency contact, and a parent’s signature. What Williams got for the Fenty kids didn’t have any of that—just the kids’ names, with “Mayor’s Son” written over the rest of the form. [Download the forms: PDF 1, PDF 2]
So Williams called Emery to figure out what was up with that. He ended up getting what he thought was some very, very good news: The Fenty kids had been moved to the Pony team. The mayor, an Emery staff member said, had told the coach, who handles both Pee Wees and Ponys, to move the kids up.
Lew Turner, the coach, tells LL that the kids were indeed moved from the Pee Wees to the Ponys, but that the move was done entirely of his own initiative. “I made that call,” he says. “Nobody made that call but me.”
Turner says he texted the mayor to tell him his decision. Hizzoner’s response? “‘Great.’ He didn’t want no controversy.”
Williams, meanwhile, felt like he had a load off his shoulders. “It was like, ‘Oh, thank the Lord. All I got now is a paperwork problem,’” he says, and Emery staff said they take would care of it.
The following Monday, Feb. 23, Williams was fired.
He was summoned to Ray’s office at the end of the day, where after a long, “babbling” windup, Ray told him he was being let go. Williams describes his tone as apologetic, as though this was not something he had wanted to do. Williams, as a manager, could be fired at any time for any reason, but he says Ray volunteered that the move was due to budget cuts. And Ray added a cryptic comment to his explanation: “You’re smart. You can figure it out.”
That night, the Fenty boys were scheduled to play their first game as Ponys.
The budget rationale seems to hold little water. In response to a query from LL about current layoffs, DPR spokesperson John Stokes says in order to meet next year’s proposed budget, “reductions in staff would need to take place before the end of [the current fiscal year].” But next year’s budget proposal has Williams’ department losing only a single part-time position [PDF, p.206/E-78].
Could it have been poor performance? Williams showed LL a recent evaluation, on which he scored a 3.47 out of a possible five points. That might seem mediocre in absolute terms, Williams says, but not in DPR terms: Ray, he says, has a standing order that no manager could register a rating higher than the “perceived performance” of DPR writ large. Which, Ray had determined, rated about a 3.5.
Stokes and Ray both declined to discuss Williams’ case specifically.
Williams is quick to rattle off a list of accomplishments and awards he’s accumulated. Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. vouches for Williams’ service and says he was “very surprised” by his firing. “From every indication I have, Michael Williams was doing a good job. Every occasion I worked with him, he was very responsive,” says Thomas, who chairs the committee overseeing DPR. “I’ve known Michael for a very long time.…He’s very thorough, very responsible, and a hard worker.”
Thomas heard Williams tell his story in the D.C. Council chamber, at a DPR budget hearing he held late last month. Days after he was fired, Williams hired an attorney through a whistleblowers’ assistance outfit; the lawyer, John Clifford, wrote a letter to City Administrator Dan Tangherlini asking that Williams be reinstated, which he copied to Attorney General Peter J. Nickles. Since it involved threat of litigation, Tangherlini ended up referring the matter to Nickles.
Nickles tells LL that he is not aware of Williams’ allegations. “I have no idea,” he says. “The door is always open to the courthouse, as I like to say. And I lot of people open those doors.”
Clifford says he expects to file suit this week. Among its allegations is that DPR management spread rumors that Williams had embezzled city money in order to explain his firing—rumors that LL encountered in the course of reporting this column.
Fenty said he was also unaware of Williams’ allegations, even though they were briefly summarized at the end of a Washington Post story about the DPR budget hearing. Asked if he would categorically deny that he’d intervened in his sons’ basketball league, he demurred. “I’m not going to get involved with any personnel issue,” he tells LL.
If only that were the case, Williams says. He points out that a big part of the job he was paid to do by DPR was to prevent the problems presented by the egos and passions bred by youth sports—mainly coaches who try to bend the rules and dads behaving badly. “And this was both of them—cheating and improper parental conduct,” Williams says. “I had never heard of any executive using their political will for this type of purpose.”
The Vince ’n’ Victor Show Continues
Last month, LL covered the sizable personality conflict between D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray and Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso .
The conflict remains.
Last Tuesday, Reinoso showed up before Gray for his office’s budget hearing. Among the topics discussed was the charter school facility allotment, which is, rather controversially, being cut by $24 million. Gray and Reinoso discussed the topic for more than 15 minutes, and Gray seemed satisfied enough with the answers that he invited Reinoso to attend the hearing on the charter schools budget two days later.
Reinoso, though, had a hard time committing to that date. He kept telling Gray that he’d confirm the next day; Gray didn’t understand why he couldn’t just give a yes-or-no answer. “Is that a decision you can make independently?” he asked Reinoso, who sheepishly replied that it was. [Watch the hearing, WMV, forward to 3:07:50]
Fast forward to Thursday’s hearing, where, surprise, Reinoso doesn’t show.
From the dais, Gray explained that he had asked Reinoso to attend the hearing but that his office had said that he was taking a couple of days off, since he had been acting mayor the week prior. “So what I decided to do is something a little bit different from what we do here,” Gray said. “Rather than just wringing my hands and decry the fact that he’s not here to be able to talk on this issue, we took the time to excerpt portions of the hearing yesterday.”
Gray then played the 15-plus-minute clip from Tuesday, complete with the scheduling squabble. Applause and chuckles greeted Gray when the clip ended. [Watch the hearing, WMV format, forward to 00:01:30]
“Well, there you have it!” he said, before engaging in some of that hand-wringing: “I think what is especially bothersome to me is that, if one was going to be off, you could have said that earlier in the conversation—that I can’t be there because I’m not going to be at work on Thursday or Friday. Which, of course, would leave some cynic to believe that you decided that you were gonna be off Thursday or Friday after this exchange.”
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