A mayor who screws up as often as Anthony A. Williams needs a reliable way of stifling the press. Goons are a nonstarter for the mayor, who sells himself as a reform-minded leader. And Williams hasn’t yet mastered the double talk of legendary blame dodger Marion S. Barry Jr.
So Williams and his underlings downtown have crafted a more technocratic means of obstruction, and it goes like this: Don’t ask about how we deal with incompetent government officials, because that’s a private matter.
This well-worn dodge got another workout last week, as part of the continuing scandal over the D.C. police department’s mass arrest of peaceful protesters last September in Pershing Park. The department completed its own internal probe of claims that cops had bungled the arrests by failing to give warnings to the protesters. But Williams did not release the findings to the public.
On Thursday, Sept. 11, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan demanded that the mayor let the sun shine in. “If the city has gone so far as to investigate this matter and recognize it was wrong when hundreds of people were arrested…I think the citizens need to know what happened,” said Sullivan, who is adjudicating lawsuits over Pershing Park.
Reflexively, the Williams people declared that the investigation into the public incident was private. Mayoral spokesperson Tony Bullock told the Washington Post that the city government couldn’t release some of the report’s sensitive information because of personnel considerations.
There’s only one problem with that: The report, which was finally released the next day, contained nothing on personnel actions stemming from the Pershing Park disaster. Bullock concedes that he hadn’t reviewed the report when he cited personnel issues. “I was told there were disciplinary actions in the report,” he says. Far from it: D.C. police Chief Charles H. Ramsey concluded that his minions had acted in “good faith,” even as they went about improperly arresting 400 peaceful protesters. They deserved no punishment, said the chief.
So there you have it: Hiding behind personnel concerns has become such a pat response for the Williams administration that it invokes them even when they don’t exist.
“It’s come up quite a number of times,” says Post reporter Justin Blum, who covers the D.C. public schools. “It’s a recurring theme.”
Indeed, it seems to recur whenever the Williams administration makes another gaffe. This summer, the mayor came under fire for abuses of official D.C. credit cards used by city-government employees. After the administration completed its review of the problem, WRC-TV reporter Tom Sherwood wanted to know who was getting punished.
“When we asked who’s been disciplined, we get, ‘Well, that’s a personnel matter. We can’t tell you the details,’” recalls Sherwood.
Same thing happened last year, after the Washington Times reported that three high-ranking officials in the D.C. Fire Department had engaged in the District’s indigenous white-collar art form: résumé padding. Again, the Williams folks investigated and, again, they announced that they had taken “appropriate disciplinary actions,” with no further elaboration.
By now, the vagueness itself conveys a message: “Appropriate disciplinary actions,” in Wilson Building code, mean a slap on the wrist. You can tell, because when the mayor comes up with ass-whupping sanctions against D.C. employees, he holds a press conference to tell all about it.
Back in January 2000, Williams stood before reporters at One Judiciary Square to announce that he’d fired five D.C. employees and suspended two others for a towering scandal over treatment of the city’s mentally retarded residents. “There have been critical failures in oversight, critical failures in systems, and this has to stop, and it’s going to stopstarting now,” Williams said at the time.
About a year later, the Post queried the administration on what had happened to those two employees whose suspension Williams had announced in January 2000, as well as others subject to similar sanctions. Reply: That’s private.
“The city made very public its decision to punish people for the treatment that mentally retarded citizens suffered in group homes, but then didn’t want to make public how long some of those employeesand othershad been on administrative leave,” says Post reporter Carol Leonnig, who also notes that the D.C. government refused to cough up the ZIP codes of its employees.
In coming years, the Williams administration plans to do more obstructing and fewer “we-cleaned-house” press conferences. Bullock says, “Our policy has changed….We can’t even confirm that an individual was terminated or that an individual was reprimanded.” The mandate for additional personnel ass-covering came straight from former acting Corporation Counsel Arabella Teal, who, in a mayoral cabinet meeting earlier this year, schooled top aides on the hazards of disclosure.
In justifying the clampdown on personnel information, D.C. officials recite the city’s personnel code, which strives to “ensure the greatest degree of applicant or employee privacy.” The statute states that the city is required to disclose only bare-bones data on an employee: name, title, grade, salary, and “duty stations.”
Damage control couldn’t be more convenient: If a foul-up involves a municipal employee, then it’s off the record. That leaves a narrow universe of nonhuman mishaps subject to full disclosure. Automated street sweeper runs over pedestrian. Hurricane downs trees, interrupts trash pickup. Boss Shepherd statue languishes.
“Poor and defensive administrators will try to hide behind ‘personnel actions,’ and good, forthright public servants will be accountable to taxpayers,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson via e-mail.
The privacy dodge puts public openness alongside education reform and ethical purity on the administration’s list of great broken campaign pledges. As a mayoral wannabe in 1998, Williams promised an end to the media approach of Barry’s flunkies, who treated requests for information like essentially all other requests for municipal servicesthat is, maybe tomorrow.
Perhaps Williams’ vision for an unmediated torrent of information passing from D.C. agencies to the public was based on an assumption that his mayoralty would be as free of scandal as his celebrated run as the District’s chief financial officer. But a string of ethics and government operations miscues brought an end to the administration’s planned partnership with the local media.
And some reporters are wondering how far the zone of privacy will extend. “If it’s illegal for the government to tell you about disciplinary actions, why do they announce promotions?” asks Sherwood.
Good question, says Bullock: “I’m not even sure of that.”
The Post’s Sunday Source section thrives on a concept: Teaching area folks how to do things that they’d otherwise pay someone else to do. Like roasting their own coffee, making a vindaloo, or making their own Hawaiian lei.
Great endeavors, all.
And the Source in its Sept. 7 edition took the DIY theme to new and adventuresome extremes. For all intents and purposes, one of its features could have been titled “Do Your Own Investigative Journalism.”
The offending piece was the section’s “AnswerMan” box, which addressed a letter from a Silver Spring man on the whereabouts of two local TV weather people who had “disappeared from the screen.”
AnswerMan showed readers how to handle one of the queries, informing that former WJLA weather reporter Alexandra Steele had taken a position with the Weather Channel.
But AnswerMan had this to say about the other person of interest, Dennis Ketterer: “[T]he former WJLA weather dude was most recently at Baltimore’s WMAR. That’s where his trail goes cold. He’s no longer on Channel 2, and station execs didn’t return our calls.”
Dept. of Media took that as a cue to do our own journalism in the privacy of our own home, just the way we make home-style gazpacho and betta-fish vases. So we undertook days of scratching and clawing, records searches, and old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism. Or, actually, a brief visit to Switchboard.com plus a fax and a brief conversation with the elusive local weather icon.
Ketterer, it turns out, is in Gaithersburg.
The Maryland resident left WMAR in late March and is now working on launching his own TV program, Dennis. The trick, he says, is to produce a “kickass” pilot, and he’s now trolling for funding for the whole enterprise. Ketterer wouldn’t describe the concept for the show for fear that someone might copy it.
Post staffer John Kelly, AnswerMan himself, says that the column is designed to convey “so much more than the answer”in this case, the way TV personalities get “yanked from our lives like some divorced uncle.” “That’s one half of one column,” says Kelly, “and if you look at my track record, I think you’ll find it’s pretty good.” Erik Wemple