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Given his demanding schedule of ribbon-cuttings, strategy sessions with the Republican leadership, press conferences, and courtesy visits with foreign dignitaries, Mayor Anthony A. Williams has a limited amount of time each week to check in with the 45 or so people who make up his cabinet. So on Thursdays, each department head submits something called a “Front Burner Report,” which clues in the mayor and other executive-office higher-ups on issues that could combust into three-alarm fires, if, say, they somehow found their way into the pages of the Washington Post.
The mayor reads through these reports every week, as do his deputy mayors, his chief of staff, the city administrator, and other hangers-on. The reports have a simple three-column template: the first column defines the government fuckup, the second details the proposed Band-Aid, and the third offers a time frame for just how fast this problem will go away.
On July 18, 2002, a Thursday, then-D.C. Chief Medical Examiner Jonathan L. Arden submitted the following front-burner summary to his superiors, Williams and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Margret Nedelkoff Kellems. For those unfamiliar with Arden’s offices on the D.C. General Hospital campus, or who don’t indulge in too many Law & Order episodes, LL offers the fact that the chief medical examiner manages the city’s morgue.
This week’s Front Burner
Report is presented in
The form of haiku.
Bloated and malodorous:
Woe is our budget!
For those less familiar with Japanese poetry, LL points out Arden’s near-perfect execution of the form. Two out of three of the former chief medical examiner’s verses, including his introduction, contain the requisite 17 syllables, carefully metered out: five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. Arden even includes a kigo, the traditional season word, which gives a reader a sense of the time of year the composition takes place.
For example, in his third verse, “end-of-fiscal-year” signals sometime before Oct. 1. And so without even looking up at the top, scholarly types like Mayor Williams and Deputy Mayor Kellems could know that Arden had submitted his report in the summertime.
Perhaps that served as Arden’s replacement for the “Time Frame/Status” column in the formatted, bureaucratic reports.
Arden’s less-poetic weekly submissions indicate something else to readers today: that Williams-administration officials knew there were serious management problems in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner long before the recent spate of allegations that led to Arden’s Oct. 7 departure.
A few days prior to his resignation, D.C. Inspector General Charles C. Maddox released a 100-page-plus report detailing major personnel and administrative problems in Arden’s office. In his investigation, Maddox concluded that the chief medical examiner had a major backlog of autopsy reports, was storing unreleased bodies dating back to 2000, and had failed to produce annual reports detailing death and autopsy statistics, as required by District law.
The inspector general’s report also chronicled a number of health and safety issues, including employee exposure to biohazardous contamination, inadequate equipment and procedures, and lack of staffing to meet the department’s 24-hour needs.
There was another nail in the coffin. In addition to presiding over the morgue-management problems detailed by Maddox, Arden had also attracted the attention of the Office of the Corporation Counsel, which has investigated sexual-harassment and racial-discrimination allegations from his co-workers. On the day of his resignation, five of Arden’s deputies sat before D.C. Council Judiciary Committee Chair Kathy Patterson and explained in detail their concerns. “Dr. Arden is well-known among OCME staff for the sexually suggestive actions and comments to which he has routinely subjected certain female employees,” Deputy Medical Examiner Sarah Colvin told Patterson.
The deputy medical examiners filed formal complaints with the D.C. Office of Human Rights on Sept. 23.
Hints of those problems, too, were manifest in Arden’s distinctive reports to the mayor. On Nov. 8, 2001, for example, Arden announced the hiring of a toxicologist in his weekly report: “I can barely contain myself. (Of course, that’s not unusual, but that’s another sordid tale.) The anticipation has been agonizing! (What’s that about no pain, no gain? Sounds kind of kinky to me.)”
That was classic Arden. He often filed his reports late, stuck to a stream-of-consciousness style, and delighted in straying from the standard format. He often appeared more intent on prying a chuckle out of his bosses than on enlightening them.
Take this report from March 14, 2002:
If we open our magazines and turn to page 20, check out the box at the top of the page with the weekly feature “Leather Boys from…”Oops! Wrong magazine. In the Post the bit in the box is entitled “Ask Tom”….What if your restaurant is the only game in town? What if the reservation you are making is for a newly dead person? What if you can’t find another place that serves dead folk? You’re stuck right? So if the reservation desk at that chic place Chez Morgue is answered by a machine, you’re never quite certain that your favorite corpse has a good table, are you?
This was Arden’s way of informing the mayor that his department faced severe staffing problems. On Jan. 27, as Arden explained in the report, a hospice nurse spent six hours trying to report a death to his office. But because there wasn’t anyone on duty to answer the call, the nurse kept getting an answering machine. “There aren’t enough investigators to be on duty 24 hours/day, so nighttime scenes don’t get responses (It’s OK; nobody dies at night),” a flippant Arden wrote.
In his smartass riffs, Arden did touch upon many of the problems Maddox outlined in his report: He repeatedly complained about facilities, personnel shortages, and his work both with the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration and the Child Fatality Review Committee. But he rarely offered solutions or time frames in which to solve the vexing problems in his office, and he portrayed himself as the pitiable victim of a dysfunctional bureaucracy.
He evinced quite a bit of self-awareness, too. On Sept. 13, 2001, two days after terrorists crashed passenger airplanes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, Arden forwarded this report to the mayor: “After reading many of my Front Burners and related missives, you have reached the conclusion that I am a whiny son-of-a-bitch with a paranoid streak and a huge chip permanently implanted on my shoulder, what with all the complaining about OCME being left out, ignored, forever needing more money.”
“If I were a supervisor getting reports like that, it would be an indication that here’s someone who doesn’t take supervision seriously,” remarks Patterson. “I think [the reports are] sophomoric and inappropriate.”
Arden came to the District as a change agent in April 1998. Around that time, the local media were chronicling a horror-movieish backlog of bodies at the city’s morgue. Arden came in promising to clean things up and put in procedures to make his department more efficient and responsive.
At a certain point, though, Arden seemed to have given up. Here’s his Front Burner Report from June 27, 2002:
Oh crap, late again!….Do you want to hear the excuses? (I promise not to say that my baby brother spread peanut butter on it.) Anyway, when I got back to the office after spending the ENTIRE afternoon in federal court (and part of the morning reviewing those FIVE autopsies I was to testify about in one sitting) it suddenly dawned on me that I had not filed a Front Burner report today. (Almost like forgetting to breathe). So here I am, exhausted and emotionally drained (and late for my next appointment) trying to cobble together something that will meet the expectations of the assignment. (Is the sympathy meter even registering yet? Is anyone out there?…)
That’s a good question. Apparently no one ever told Arden his reports were inadequate or inappropriate, as evidenced by the record: The same attitude persisted in his submissions through the end of his tenure.
If Mayor Williams needed any more evidence of troubles in the medical examiner’s office, he could have referred to his own vaunted accountability “scorecards.” Introduced in his first term as a means of tracking the performance of his appointees, the scorecards list specific goals and deadlines.
Not only did Arden not meet his scorecard requirements, but his office didn’t even collect most of the data on which the office was supposed to be evaluated. Many of the scorecard categories”Complete 25% of autopsy reports that require toxicology reports only within 10 weeks”have “n/a” in places.
And the Williams rating system ignored the sort of performance standards cited in the inspector general’s reportcritical benchmarks such as the backlog of autopsy reports and the percentage of autopsy reports completed within 30 days.
Even with Maddox and the city’s lawyers snooping around, Arden didn’t seem too bothered. On Aug. 14, two months after the corporation counsel weighed in about his office and Patterson asked the mayor to dismiss Arden, this is what the chief medical examiner had to report: “Nothing much happening at OCME lately (insert yawning noise here).”
•At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz knows a sympathy plea when she sees one. On Sept. 16, about three dozen employees of Fort Myer Construction came to the council chambers and pleaded that the body reinstate the company’s privilege of contracting with the city. The city’s Office of Contracting and Procurement had debarred the construction company for three years because employees of Fort Myer were found guilty of bribing officials at the city’s Department of Public Works and overbilling the city for asphalt in the late ’90s.
The company has also been barred from any federally funded projects for 18 months.
Fort Myer claimed that hundreds of D.C. workers would lose their jobs if the council didn’t overturn the ban. So they showed the council the faces of their workers. They wanted Schwartz and her colleagues to vote for a piece of emergency legislation that would effectively put Fort Myer back on the list of D.C. contractors in good standing.
Where other councilmembers saw a straightforward jobs issue, Schwartz saw an opportunity for investigative legislating. The councilmember entertained “suspicions about how many of the workers sitting in the Council chamber that afternoon actually lived in the District…” Schwartz later explained in a letter to her colleagues.
So she ordered her staff to tail the complaining workers out of the council chamber, onto the bus, and all the way back to Fort Myer’s headquarters at 2237 33rd St. NE. Although Schwartz would not reveal her staff’s sources and methods, she did divulge the results of her covert action: employees hopped into 24 cars with Maryland tags, nine with Virginia tags, and only four with D.C. plates.
In another trip, on Sept. 22, Schwartz-staffer PIs counted 59 Maryland cars, 12 Virginia cars, and nine District cars.
Schwartz voted against giving Fort Myer a second chance on Sept. 16 and again when another version of the bill came up on Tuesdaya position joined only by Ward 3’s Patterson. Elissa Silverman
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