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In 1996, lawyer Paul Strauss started two jobs in public service.
For one, he was elected as one of two unpaid “shadow senators” tasked with drumming up support for congressional voting rights for the District. In that position, he’s done a job with minimal, ill-defined responsibilities and zero pay well enough to win re-election in 2002 and, having won the Democratic nomination last month, to be on the verge of winning a third six-year term in November.
Also in that year, he accepted a slot on the District’s Board of Real Property Assessment Appeals (BRPAA). Unlike being a shadow senator, that posting comes with rather important, well-defined responsibilities and decent pay ($50 an hour) to match. In that position, which has included a stint chairing the board for most of the last decade, he’s done well enough to earn this endorsement from D.C. Auditor Deborah K. Nichols, whose office recently wrapped up a probe of the board: Strauss, her report [PDF] says, has “provided a dubious level of service to residents and businesses of the District of Columbia.”
OK, Deborah, tell LL how you really feel.
Where Strauss has discharged his duties as shadow senator with a measure of salutary buffoonery—hiring legions of unpaid aides, for instance, and hobnobbing with Hollywood types—his performance as BRPAA chair has been anything but salutary, if you believe Nichols’ report, released last Wednesday.
Strauss, the report reads, “ignored regulations, conducted himself in a manner that created the appearance of impropriety or lack of integrity, accepted campaign donations from organizations that represented clients before BRPAA, and failed to effectively manage and improve BRPAA’s operations, performance, and stature.…the Chairman did not provide BRPAA with the competent leadership that the important work of BRPAA requires thus jeopardizing the integrity of BRPAA and diminishing public trust and confidence in BRPAA’s decisions.”
Yikes. And the rest of the report is similarly, unusually scathing and a hell of a read. [Download a PDF]
There’s a reason why the D.C. Auditor would turn her attention to BRPAA (pronounced BURP-uh). It’s where folks across the city go when they’ve been screwed on their property-tax assessments. If you think that the city thinks your house is worth too much, you go to BRPAA. And it’s not just homeowners that benefit from the board’s decisions; in dollar terms, most of the relief it offers is granted to commercial properties, hatching a cottage industry of lawyers specializing in getting real-estate mavens’ tax bills cut.
How much of a cut? According to the auditor’s report, in tax year 2008 alone, BRPAA decisions took $2.9 billion off the taxable property rolls, resulting in as much as $49.7 million being pulled from the District’s property tax coffers. Given BRPAA’s potential impact on the city’s bottom line, one would hope that its operations would be marked by a certain sense of professionalism—never mind the fact that public confidence in the District’s property-tax operations aren’t exactly at an all-time high now in the wake of the Harriette Walters scandal.
What exactly are the dimensions of the Strauss scandal? The board, according to Nichols’ report, uses a lousy filing system “that results in delays in locating documents, misplaced records, and filing errors,” has not held required administrative meetings, filed rulings that didn’t include “accurate, detailed, written statements of the basis for the decision,” and failed to have appellants certify their statements as correct in certain cases.
Now, dating back to the days when Marion Barry installed a 20-something R. Donahue Peebles on the board in the early ’80s, BRPAA has never been known for a high degree of transparency or efficiency. Peebles, in fact, went on to establish a lucrative consultancy advising big-shot real estate types how to get their tax bills cut by taking advantage of the arcane process, eventually parlaying that gig into the $4 billion hotel development firm Peebles now runs out of Coral Gables, Fla.
Since then, the board has done little to change the way it does business. The report paints a picture of an operation stuck in the late ’70s, with virtually no computerized records and files kept in “manila folders and over-crowded file cabinets.” Then there’s the matter of BRPAA’s abysmal Web site, which offers little more than a few forms, an address where you need to file your appeal, and a cursory list of the reasons appeals can be granted. There’s no access to any board decisions and a hearing calendar on the site hasn’t been updated since January.
Strauss defends his performance, in part, by putting it in context: “By D.C. government standards, which I don’t want to hold up as the gold standard, we weren’t bad.” In his time on the board, he says, progress has been made.
The issues with recordkeeping and using more technology, Strauss says, are rooted in a lack of resources devoted to the board. As way of evidence, he supplied figures showing that in fiscal 2008, BRPAA received about $200 per case it handled (about 3,500), while the city zoning office, which supports the D.C. Zoning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals, received some $15,000 per case. For years, Strauss says, the board had three employees, even as its workload went from fewer than 500 cases per year to well over 3,000.
The report, however, disagrees with the resources excuse: “There is no apparent budgetary reason for the failure of BRPAA to implement an efficient, modern, reliable system for organizing and storing official records,” it reads.
Some of Nichols’ most serious charges involve Strauss’ accepting campaign donations from folks who have had business before BRPAA. The report identifies two donors—Castle Management and Keith McIntosh of Trammell Crow—who together put $1,400 in Strauss’ coffers when he was running (unsuccessfully) for the Ward 3 council seat in 2006. That year, according to the report, a tax appellant associated with Castle got about $3 million cut from assessments. Strauss was not on the panels that made the decisions, but the connections certainly “create the appearance of impropriety,” as the report puts it.
That’s a point of view Strauss says he’s now come to agree with, “given what’s happened with the Office of Tax and Revenue and everything else.”
Strauss says he’s “always tried to be above reproach” in his public dealings to the point, that in 12 years on the board, he’s never appealed the assessment for his own house or even claimed the homestead exemption to which he’s entitled. “My wife wasn’t really happy with that decision,” he says, “but I did it.”
In a conversation with LL, Strauss also took exception with the conduct of the audit. Documents provided by BRPAA to rebut some of the auditor’s conclusions were not included in the final report, Strauss says, and he points to the fact that the D.C. Auditor employee who actually conducted the probe, attorney Yolanda Branch, is new on the job and has no particular real-estate experience. “People have to have the appropriate background and expertise with what they’re auditing,” he says.
Says Nichols, “The audit speaks for itself. I think it was conducted by a very qualified staff member.”
Among the report’s recommendations are not only that Strauss no longer accept campaign donations from folks who appear before the board, but also that “BRPAA members not simultaneously hold elected and appointed positions.” That’s a point of view echoed by the local Republican party, which is running Nelson Rimensnyder against Strauss in the shadow senator race and last week issued a press release demanding that Strauss step down from both that seat and BRPAA head. (Strauss’ BRPAA term expired earlier this year; barring resignation, he’ll leave the board once Mayor Adrian M. Fenty nominates a replacement and the council confirms.)
Thus far, the revelation that a 12-year elected official has provided “dubious” service to District taxpayers has landed with a hollow thud. The sum total of media coverage prior to this LL item has been a 350-word Washington Examiner story. And don’t expect too much outrage from local elected officials—Strauss is an inveterate politico, showing up at virtually any political event and donating, along with wife Katherine Strauss, to candidates across town.
On Monday, both Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans—who oversees BRPAA as head of the finance and revenue committee—gave LL the old I-haven’t-read-the-whole-thing-yet excuse, five days after the report’s release. Evans says he’ll be holding a hearing on the report, but not until mid-November—after Strauss will likely have been elected to a third term as shadow senator.
LL asked Evans if Strauss—who incidentally donated $250 to Evans’ re-election campaign this year—still had his endorsement. Of course he does, Evans said, “just like all the Democrats.”
Fired Fenty Aide Strikes Back in E-Mail
On Sept. 26, Fenty fired his neighborhood services coordinator for Ward 6, and she is not happy about it.
Call it Chamomilegate!
In an e-mail to Fenty that was blind-copied to neighborhood activists, Caroline Jhingory describes having been “fired 5 hours after not refusing, but questioning someone who was not my direct supervisor instructing me to use personal funds to purchase the mayor Chamomile tea” before a Union Station press conference.
Also in the e-mail, Jhingory slapped Fenty, saying she had lost “hope and respect for you and your administration.” She strongly defended her work record since taking the job back in June—a view backed by a number of supportive e-mails from Ward 6 activists forwarded to LL—and describes being told by her “tearful” supervisor, Office of Community Relations and Services director Sarah Latterner, that Fenty believed she was “not a ‘team player.’”
“Often I defended you against those who saw you as an unreasonable firing maverick and I never thought I would experience it first hand,” Jhingory wrote.
Jhingory also alleges a supposed conspiracy, describing her firing as “a somehow underhanded move to replace me with Forest Hayes and provide an opportunity to an individual that describes himself as a ‘friend of the mayor for over 20 years’ in addition to his being your fraternity brother.”
Mafara Hobson, spokesperson for Fenty, confirmed that Jhingory is no longer a city employee and that Hayes started as a Ward 6 neighborhood services coordinator last week; that, Hobson explained, is a coincidence rather than evidence of a conspiracy, since each ward is slotted two reps apiece and Hayes had been slated to fill the vacant spot before Jhingory’s departure. She had no comment on Hayes’ relationship to the mayor.
Jhingory, contacted by LL, had no comment.
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