City Paper is not for tourists
Two-and-a half years ago, attorney Garrett L. Lee met with Adrian M. Fenty, then the councilmember from Ward 4, about a job. Lee and Fenty were acquaintances whose wives were close friends, and with Fenty well into an energetic mayoral campaign, the post—on the staff of his human services committee—carried the possibility of further work high in District government.
Lee, however, had to bring up an uncomfortable fact: He had been sued by one of his former clients for legal malpractice more than a year prior. Lee broached the subject by telling Fenty only the roughest sketches of the lawsuit: “I told him about the existence of a malpractice case. That was it. That was the sum total of it,” Lee would later say. “I did not go into details.”
Fenty did not press for more information. In fact, according to Lee, he asked virtually no questions at all about the lawsuit.
A few more questions, it turns out, might have been in order. Lee—who, until June, held the job of interim deputy general counsel [PDF] to Fenty—last week was disbarred by the D.C. Court of Appeals [PDF] in connection with the malpractice litigation. A court entered a $1 million judgment against Lee in 2007 after he did not reply to the claim; Lee’s appeal of that decision was dismissed in December. The above account comes courtesy of a November 2006 deposition of Lee in connection with the lawsuit.
Now, as mayor, Fenty has taken plenty of hits for his sometimes laissez-faire approach to the vetting process. A mere smattering:
• Fenty was heavily criticized for not consulting loads of stakeholders (save for Joel Klein) before selecting Michelle Rhee school chancellor, then giving the Washington Post special access to Rhee prior to the official announcement of her nomination.
• When he named Cathy Lanier to replace Charles Ramsey as police chief shortly before his inauguration, it came out that Fenty had consulted virtually no one aside from City Administrator-designate Dan Tangherlini. Also, a previous LL dug up a lawsuit Lanier had filed against the department and fellow officers alleging sexual harassment, plus allegations against Lanier connected with the 2002 Pershing Park arrests.
• Fenty nominated Geoffrey Griffis, former chair of the Board of Zoning Adjustment, to a seat on the Zoning Commission, fully aware of questions regarding an alleged conflict of interest during his BZA days. At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson promised a messy confirmation hearing, and he delivered one. Griffis’ nomination never came to a council vote.
• Fenty buddy and campaign treasurer Ben Soto was nominated to a seat on the Sports and Entertainment Commission despite having an indirect stake in the Washington Nationals, whose stadium the commission was building. Soto won confirmation after promising to recuse himself on baseball-related affairs.
• Fenty was forced to pull Herb Scott’s nomination to a mayoral-appointed slot on the school board after questions were raised about tax issues. Fenty replaced him with Ted Trabue, who caught heat for his involvement with anti-union causes before winning confirmation.
But Lee’s disbarment, first reported in Monday’s Legal Times by reporter Jeff Jeffrey, shows that Fenty’s let-it-ride approach to background research predates his mayoral tenure.
Attorney Janet DeCosta, who represented erstwhile Lee client Xavier Jordan in the malpractice claim, says that she was surprised by Fenty’s lack of due diligence. “As a professional,” says DeCosta, “I certainly would have looked into [the lawsuit].”
If Fenty had merely pulled the court complaint filed against Lee, he could have found that his prospective employee had been accused of missing numerous filings and not responding to several motions and other orders regarding Jordan’s divorce case, which dates back to 1999. The kicker is that when an appeals judge finally ruled against Jordan [PDF], a copy of the opinion that Lee provided to his client had a key line removed—one noting that Lee had never filed a brief defending Jordan.
DeCosta’s deposition of Lee back in 2006 details the Fenty approach to staff vetting circa 1996:
“Did you tell [Fenty] the allegations?” DeCosta asked Lee.
“I did not tell him the allegations,” Lee replied.
“Mr. Fenty didn’t ask you about the case?”
“He didn’t ask you about the status?”
“He didn’t ask you whether or not there were any other parties?”
“He didn’t ask you whether it had any merit?”
“And you didn’t say to him that it was frivolous or anything like that?”
“I told him that I believed it didn’t have merit. I told him the timeframes we were dealing with….”
“He didn’t ask any questions?”
Fenty’s office would not address Lee’s version of events as presented in the deposition.
In Hizzoner’s defense, LL has heard no allegations of any wrongdoing by Lee while in the public employ—he worked in the Office of the Secretary after his council stint and before the deputy general counsel job—and when it became clear in June that disbarment was a serious possibility, Lee was swiftly dealt with.
Says Acting Attorney General Peter Nickles, “I asked for his resignation, and I got it within 36 hours.”
Yet Fenty vetting issues continue to crop up.
After Sharlynn D. Bobo left the Child and Family Services Agency under fire two weeks ago, Fenty plucked Roque Gerald out of a post as head of CFSA’s Office of Clinical Practice to head the agency on an interim basis.
Turned out Gerald had a paper trail even easier to find than Lee’s: A Google search for “Roque Gerald” turns up among the first results a Virginia Supreme Court decision concerning a 1989 incident where Gerald had sex with a patient suffering from severe depression during a therapy session.
The newspaper Youth Today broke the story on a Friday, and the Washington Post followed up the following Monday with acknowledgments from Nickles that the mayor’s office had been aware of Gerald’s past when the appointment was made. Gerald’s outstanding service in the 20 years since the incident, Nickles told the Post and others, outweighed his past behavior.
LL would buy such an argument if Nickles were talking about, say, the director of the Department of Insurance, Securities, and Banking. But for the city’s child-welfare agency? Yikes.
Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, the current chair of the human services committee, defends Fenty’s decision, saying Gerald was about the only fellow on the CFSA bench who could have stepped in to do a credible job.
“I just felt like there was hardly anyone there to take over,” Wells says. “Some people feel like he was the last man standing.”
Wells says he doubts that Gerald will be considered a candidate for the permanent CFSA job.
In any case, the Gerald affair has affected at least one public official’s vetting standards.
Wells, who says that Gerald informed him of his past after the story appeared in the media, sat down with his committee staff last week. “I wanted them to know that’s part of their job—Google,” he says. “I had to remind them of that, and they took it to heart.”
• LL does not oft detour into the intimate lives of the power players he covers, but, well, things sometimes get a tad difficult to ignore.
With that caveat, LL relays this prime gossip: Seen together this weekend at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments summer retreat on the Eastern Shore was Mendelson—no surprise there; he lives for intergovernmental confabs—but with a new companion, Carol J. Mitten.
Ahem…does Mendo have a girlfriend?
“I can only speak for myself, but it is correct,” says Mendelson. “She and I have been dating for a couple of months, and why she’s interested in me—well, I won’t go into any self-deprecation.”
Mendelson, in fact, has every reason to indulge in some self-aggrandizement: Mitten is quite a catch, as civic-minded types in this town are well aware. She was a longtime member and former chair of the D.C. Zoning Commission and was the well-regarded director of the Office of Property Management for the last three years of the Williams administration. She’s also a past president of the Washington, D.C., Association of Realtors, a member of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, and LL also heard her name bandied about in recent months in connection to a possible run for Ward 2 councilmember.
Responding to LL’s queries on the matter also mark the first time Mendelson has publicly addressed his separation from wife Connie Ridgway last year. Mendelson—who returned LL’s call after buying a new bicycle (no training wheels!) for just-turned-8-year-old daughter, Adelaide—has moved out of his longtime home in McLean Gardens down Wisconsin Avenue a bit, to Glover Park. Mendelson says the split is final.
At the Council of Governments outing, held at a Cambridge, Md., hotel, Mendelson and Mitten could have enjoyed a keynote address from University of Maryland climate-change specialist Donald F. Boesch, plus talks from District planning director Harriet Tregoning and the usual interjurisdictional shop talk.
LL asked Mendelson whether the combination of beach and “best practices” made for a romantic escape: “How do I answer that question? I’ll leave it to your imagination.”
• While LL is rehashing the whole Geoffrey Griffis thing, he will go ahead and use the opportunity to put out an APB to current Board of Zoning Adjustment members.
During his confirmation, Mendelson made hay out of the fact that Griffis, while sitting on the BZA, had raised funds and volunteered for Fenty. Griffis, at the time, claimed there was no conflict of interest.
But Griffis’ activities, Mendo felt, were violations of the federal Hatch Act, which prohibits certain political activities by District employees and officeholders who are not the mayor, the recorder of deeds, or a councilmember. A Mendelson staffer posted a letter to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel shortly after Griffis’ February 2007 confirmation hearing asking for an official opinion on the matter. The request disappeared into the federal maw for months, but a reply finally arrived last week.
The verdict: “[M]embers of the BZA, including the Chairman, are covered by the Hatch Act,” wrote attorney Mariama Liverpool. Mendelson says he has no plans at this time to pursue any action against Griffis.
• Fenty will be Beijing-bound next month, LL has learned.
Hizzoner will not be attending the Games of the XXIX Olympiad in an official capacity, mind you, but as a personal trip with his family, says his spokesperson, Carrie Brooks.
Brooks says her boss will be there for a week toward the beginning of the games, which kick off Aug. 8. As for which events he’ll be attending, Brooks says Fenty’s sporting tastes run toward the triathlon events he knows so well: “[H]e definitely wants to check out the swimming and track and field events,” she writes in an e-mail.
This won’t be Fenty’s first international jaunt as mayor. Last summer, he traveled with family to Jamaica, where wife Michelle Cross Fenty has roots. He still has a ways to go if he wants to match Williams’ travel sked. In 2006, LL calculated that Williams racked up almost 200,000 miles of foreign travel on 18 trips during his second term.
According to LL’s calculations, Fenty will have racked up a mere 16,766 international miles when he returns from China.
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