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This past summer, Mayor Anthony A. Williams came under fire for failing the most basic test of a politician: getting on the primary ballot for re-election. Every opinion-maker in town was skewering the mayor for incompetence, indifference, insouciance, in-everything. It was great fun.
District politics isn’t District politics, it seems, unless someone is screwing up the most fundamental aspects of his job.
And that’s where D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi comes in. More than two years into his tenure, Gandhi has come under fire for a crisis as old as the floppy disk: The city’s $20 million automated payroll system has failed, forcing Gandhi to retreat to the old, flawed system—an arduous task that is costing taxpayers an extra $14 million.
At current prices, that’s enough to arrange for bus service for up to three
Thanks to recent payroll screw-ups, the school system, which has yet to convert to the old system, has overspent its personnel budget by $23 million. School officials say that they are not even sure who’s on the payroll at this point.
An April 2001 General Accounting Office report issued a gloomy verdict on the city’s financial management: “As the city moves toward greater financial independence, the weakness of its financial management system may become increasingly difficult to overcome.”
The payroll problems alone would mire most D.C. politicians in crisis. Gandhi, however, continues crunching numbers in the quiet of his Wilson Building office. Perhaps the genial accountant acquired his Teflon from straightening out the city’s wretched tax-collection system. However, the CFO can thank two people for keeping him out of trouble: Williams and previous CFO Valerie Holt.
When the payroll and other money-management-system difficulties came to light, via the GAO report, Williams rushed to Gandhi’s defense. “Given that we walked through hell to get where we are, put it in context,” the mayor told the Washington Post.
Williams, of course, had a strong incentive to add context to Gandhi’s failings: The payroll problems date back to when Williams himself ran the CFO’s office.
Ass-covering imperatives aside, many Wilson Building vets view Gandhi as Williams without the bow tie. In the original conception, seven years ago, the CFO was designed as an authority independent from the mayor and the council. In practice, however, the CFO works as an appendage of the mayor’s office—at least in the worldview of most councilmembers.
“We, of course, have to rely on the CFO—who is really the mayor’s person,” At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz preached to the converted at a Log Cabin Republicans meeting Monday night.
Schwartz didn’t just pull that notion out of her belt buckle. She’s seen the CFO caddy for the mayor.
In meetings with councilmembers, Gandhi has manipulated the numbers to suit the mayor’s agenda. During budget hearings in March, Gandhi circulated charts visually depicting the outcome from various budget options. The only chart that showed a balanced budget was the one that assumed the repeal of the personal-income-tax portion of the 1999 Tax Parity Act—an outcome long favored by Williams. The charts outraged councilmembers who supported the cut in the District’s income tax.
“We can use facts to suit our own purposes,” said At-Large Councilmember David Catania. “I do it, Dr. Gandhi, and you do it.”
Gandhi defended himself as simply a “bean-counter.” “I resent that comment, because I do not have an agenda here,” he responded. “I’m not running the government, sir.”
Throwing $14 million down the toilet and angering a councilmember or two are misdemeanor offenses compared with those of Gandhi’s predecessor, Holt. A favorite of the now-departed D.C. financial control board, Holt infamously botched the February 2000 audit of the city’s books. The audit mistakes threatened the city’s bond rating and could have prolonged the oversight of the hated control board.
As long as Gandhi continues producing clean and timely audits—he’s two for two at this point—he’ll continue getting a bye for petty screw-ups. For instance, he emerged unscathed from the scandal surrounding his work with CFO General Counsel Saamir Kaiser. When Kaiser left his job, in November 2001, Gandhi explained that he had left Washington to spend more time with his ailing father in England.
A much different story emerged in the Post months later: In June, federal prosecutors charged Kaiser with embezzling nearly a quarter-million dollars from the D.C. Tobacco Settlement Financing Corp., a financial vessel for the city’s tobacco-settlement dollars. With that money, which was supposed to fund health-related programs, Kaiser made a $28,000 down payment on a Mercedes Benz SL 500 Roadster, handed out more than $11,000 for his wedding and honeymoon, and wrote more than $69,000 in checks to himself.
The Tobacco Settlement Financing Corp.’s board of directors include Mayor Williams, Council Chair Linda W. Cropp, and Gandhi.
As always, an apologist for the CFO is just around the corner at the Wilson Building. “I don’t think it’s fair to blame Gandhi for Sam Kaiser. Sam Kaiser was at the control board first,” remarks At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson. “Blame them.”
Carol Schwartz enjoys outstanding name recognition among D.C. voters. Yet many of those voters don’t know that Schwartz will appear on the ballot this November. “I’ve had people come up to me in the past few weeks and say, ‘God, I’d wish you’d run,’” Schwartz told the Log Cabin Republicans Monday night. “Well, I am running.”
One D.C. voter who refuses to acknowledge Schwartz’s candidacy is Mayor Williams himself. Earlier on Monday, Schwartz showed up for a mayoral forum sponsored by the Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference of Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Williams opted to address a different crowd: the League of Kansas Municipalities 94th Annual Conference.
“I keep showing up, but I end up talking to myself,” Schwartz later quipped.
Schwartz finally faced off with the mayor Tuesday night, at a candidate forum in Chevy Chase, where she took credit for public-works improvements and faulted Williams for ethical and managerial lapses.
Schwartz’s candidacy has attracted the attention of several local publications. This week, she received endorsements from the Northwest Current and the InTowner: “Carol Schwartz is hardly the lightweight implied by the City Paper in its October 4 ‘Loose Lips’ column, in which, below the heading, ‘What the Hell,’ a substantial portion of the commentary’s intro is devoted to implications of air-headedness (a-la I Love Lucy) and irrelevant emphasis on what she was wearing at her announcement press conference,” writes InTowner publisher P.L. Wolff. “Contrary to this view of Mrs. Schwartz, she is a person of supreme substance and critical understanding of matters of public policy.”
In the supreme substance category, LL refers readers to Schwartz’s push to exempt councilmembers from parking tickets.
Both the Current and the InTowner draw their readership from Wards 2 and 3, strongholds for Williams. Schwartz contends that the endorsements came as a surprise and are not part of a concerted strategy to embarrass the mayor on his own ground. “I’m an equal-opportunity vote-getter,” said Schwartz, who wore an ethnic-themed two part-ensemble over a black turtleneck, accented by shell earrings.
* LL’s Most Creative Campaign Poster Award goes to D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz. It’s a dubious honor, of course: The most effective posters simply communicate the candidate’s name and office, visible to voters speeding down the city’s major thoroughfares.
Civic-minded motorists need to get caught at more than one red light to decipher Cafritz’s: Her lightbulb-shaped placards feature a multicultural montage of smiling children, the slogan “Let It Shine,” and a plea to “Vote!” Upon closer inspection, LL noticed alterations to the poster’s original design, including black Magic Marker blotting out the name of the campaign treasurer: Diane Simmons Williams.
The mayor’s wife served as campaign treasurer for her close personal friend two years ago, when Cafritz received the mayor’s endorsement to head the newly hybrid school board. Since then, Williams has expressed some disappointment with Cafritz’s often autocratic leadership. Earlier this year, some city leaders made very public overtures to former At-Large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot. Lightfoot told them he would run for school-board president only with the mayor’s blessing.
The mayor never asked Lightfoot. After all, he had his own electoral worries, culminating in a four-week write-in campaign.
Cafritz concedes that Williams’ situation had some impact: When she ordered the posters, she assumed that Simmons Williams would serve as her campaign treasurer again. Then, Cafritz explains, Simmons Williams took a very demanding full-time job. “And she has done a lot of work on the mayor’s campaign,” she adds offhandedly. Cafritz has named Patricia Bonds as her new campaign treasurer.
* D.C. statehood activist Timothy Cooper last month traveled to Warsaw, Poland, for a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Cooper’s mission: to lecture the conference on the congressional disenfranchisement of D.C. residents and, thereby, embarrass U.S. representatives of the anti-statehood Bush administration.
The OSCE platform calls for all people to enjoy equality under the law, universal and equal suffrage, and the right to participate in the governance of their country though duly elected representatives. Cooper pointed out that the United States isn’t in compliance with OSCE standards when it comes to D.C. residents.
When Cooper opened his spiel, he says, the U.S. delegation huddled together. “The room went absolutely into stunned silence,” Cooper reports. “Nobody, but nobody, knew about this—that citizens of the democratic capital of this world do not have these rights.”
At the close of Cooper’s remarks, a member of the U.S. delegation to OSCE jumped up and waved in the air a credit-card-sized piece of paper: his D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics-issued voter card. U.S. Delegate Don Kursch claimed “right of reply” for an unscheduled speech to the delegates, pointing out that Cooper has the right to vote for mayor, a 13-member city council, and a congressional delegate with a voice in Congress.
Kursch could not be reached for comment.
Cooper says that several delegations later pledged their support to D.C.’s cause.
* In his quest for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council, Eugene Dewitt Kinlow has marketed himself to both Democrats and Republicans. Kinlow’s strategy shifted Monday night at a candidate forum sponsored by the Crestwood Neighborhood League: “I’m running as an independent Democrat,” Kinlow announced to the small Ward 4 crowd. “So you can vote for two Democrats this time.”
Kinlow’s declaration portends a strategic onslaught against Republican At-Large incumbent Catania. Prior to his Democratic play, the former Ward 8 Democrat played cagey about whether he was angling for the seat of Democratic incumbent Mendelson or Catania.
So if elected, will Kinlow change his party affiliation back to Democrat?
The change in voter registration would have some very big consequences: According to the D.C. Home Rule Act, no more than three of the five at-large members of the council (that figure includes the chair) can have the same party affiliation. If D.C. voters elected Kinlow along with Democratic nominee Mendelson, the legislators would join fellow Democrats Cropp and Harold Brazil, making the grand total of Democrats four.
Kinlow remained noncommittal. “That’s an idea,” he told LL after the forum. “Ask me again after Election Day.” CP
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