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The agency that regulates the city’s taxicab industry is as messed up today as it was two years ago, when Mayor Anthony A. Williams promised to fix it. What’s worse, the mayor’s own people are now turning on each other. One commissioner, appointed by Williams last November, quietly resigned two weeks ago. Other mayoral appointees are praying for the immediate dismissal of the mayor’s hand-picked chair, Lee A. Williams.
“He is mercurial, dictatorial….He doesn’t have the experience that qualifies him for the $108,000 job,” says Richard Gould, who served as vice chair of the commission and chair of the rules and regulations committee. Gould says he resigned because he could “not work with or tolerate Lee Williams.”
Sandra Seegars, another outspoken member of the commission also appointed by the mayor, says she recently visited Newark, N.J., where Lee Williams, a former police detective, served as head of the taxi oversight agency. Seegars says she learned that Williams may have misrepresented his level of experience: He never actually developed his own budget and he never drafted regulations, Seegars alleges. Further, Seegars says Williams has allowed the D.C. office to descend into chaos, citing recent problems with the computerized testing conducted by the agency at its office on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. Seegars says that testing was suspended after it was discovered that some applicants for taxi licenses were receiving irregular scores. One driver, for example, scored 57 on a test in which 2 points are awarded for each correct answer and the perfect score is 100. The suspension of testing means that, for the last month, the commission has not been able to license new drivers.
Further, Seegars says she is alarmed by reports that a computer specialist with the taxicab commission was found to have been working as a hack inspector.
“How are you going to have a Grade 13 computer specialist posing as a hack inspector?” asks Seegars, who wrote a complaint and forwarded it to the Metropolitan Police Department, which is responsible for taxi-inspection functions.
Lee Williams also has been criticized for allowing many of the city’s more than 6,000 taxicab drivers to miss the April 1 deadline for installing safety partitions and other equipment as required under a law passed last year by the council.
In a letter dated April 3, a copy of which was obtained by LL, six of the taxi commission’s eight members, along with Gould, wrote to D.C. Councilmember Carol Schwartz, head of the Committee on Public Works and the Environment, which has oversight of the agency, stating their concerns about inadequate staff and equipment, the lack of control over hack inspectors, and the absence of a full-time general counsel. “We are greatly concerned over the current limitations of the commission in dealing with the serious problems of the taxicab industry that affect taxicab operation and the public,” wrote Gould, Seegars, and commission members Helen Mitchell, Stanley Tapscott, George Fenderson, and Theresa Nelson Travis.
Schwartz says she has some concerns about Lee Williams’ follow-through, citing the safety-partition delay and suspension of taxi-driver licensing. She says she was bothered by Williams’ failure to vet his fiscal 2001 budget proposal with other commission members. But she gives him credit for “opening dialogue” with drivers and notes that communications with the commission have improved somewhat. “I am cautiously optimistic,” she says. “I am trying to be supportive without being blind” to the problems.
When he was appointed last June, Lee Williams was praised by the administration as someone who could put the commission back on track, although he was the mayor’s second choice for the post. Christopher Lynn, the first nominee, was stopped dead by critical reports from the media and the DCWatch government watchdog group.
Reached at his office earlier this week, Lee Williams dismissed his critics, saying at least three of them had “applied for my job.” He roundly denies Seegars’ allegations that he misrepresented his New Jersey experience: “I did do my own budget, and I changed regulations in Newark.” He says that he inherited many of the problems he is being tagged with and that he has made strides in getting things on track. He acknowledges that testing has been suspended, but he says a proposal to purchase new equipment is before the D.C. financial control board for its approval. He says the taxi agency has been underfundedwhich accounts for the staff shortages.
“We’re making changes,” Lee Williams asserts. “In the next month, you’ll see bigger changes.”
Still, some commissioners and government sources say Lee Williams has failed miserably. “Nothing is going to happen. There are some unbelievably outrageous things that have gone on,” says Gould. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
THE NOSE KNOWS
LL has to give it to the D.C. Democratic State Committee (DSC) and its chair, Norman Neverson. They’ve made brown-nosing into a high art.
Take, for example, the group’s upcoming Kennedy-King Dinner, scheduled for Friday, April 27, at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. The DSC doesn’t want to make enemies as it makes friends, so it intends to pass out awards to everyone. Mayor Williams will receive the Chairman’s Award; no doubt Neverson, who, Judiciary Square sources say, has had a hot-and-cold relationship with the mayor, hopes that selection will help him curry favor with the mayor. Former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., who may not get any respect in airport restrooms but still receives high praise from the locals, will be handed the Wilson/Clarke Award, named for former council Chairs John A. Wilson and David Clarke. The Outstanding Democrat Award will go to Donna Brazile, who is said to be threatening a run for council and has everyone scared to death over how she might shake up local politics. The Young Democrat Award will go to Willie Flowers; maybe Neverson thinks the recognition will halt Flowers’ pending run against him this June.
New D.C. Board of Education Chair Peggy Cooper Cafritz may have been critical of the city’s teacher corps, but the DSC likes what it sees: The Washington Teachers’ Union will get the Labor Award. And, finally, the group’s Business Award will be bestowed on Tony Cheng, a restaurateur-cum-Democratic-rainmaker. Last year, Cheng hosted a fundraiser for the DSC attended by Asian business leaders and political wannabes (Loose Lips, 3/16). Some DSC members have raised questions about $4,000 worth of checks that should have gone to their organization but instead went back to Cheng to be rewritten because donors had made them out to Friends of Tony Williams. DSC members say they have yet to see that money.
DSC and District government sources say representatives from the city’s Office of the Inspector General (IG) have visited members of the committee involved with the Cheng fundraiser. When LL asked last week whether the office had seized any files or spoken with any of his members, Neverson replied, “Not to my knowledge.” Later, however, he admitted that Frank Wilds, chair of the committee that comprises the chairs of all DSC committees, “may have spoken with me about that.”
In fact, only moments earlier, Wilds and Neverson had spoken on the telephone, both men conceded to LL, laughing about reports that computers had been seized. And Wilds admitted to LL that he had told Neverson that people from the IG’s office had visited him. Wilds says that the IG’s folks asked to see copies of checks from the Cheng fundraiser. He says that he had made three copies of the checks from donors at the fundraiser. “One was for [DSC treasurer Robert] Artisst, one was for me, and one was for Norm. But Norm said he didn’t want to know nothing.
“I gave [the inspectors] the copy I had made for Norm,” Wilds added.
Wilds says he was told that the IG’s office was interested in the records because the DSC incident had become entangled in the ongoing investigation of fundraising activities by members of the mayor’s inner circle. That case involves the alleged solicitation of donations from companies doing business with the city being funneled through questionable nonprofit organizations.
Asked why Neverson was not candid about the inspectors’ visit, Wilds said, “I don’t know. I know I don’t have nothing to hide.”
Which leaves LL wondering: Does Neverson?
COLLECTION AGENT WANTED
Most folks in the District expected Mayor Williams to come up a little short in the political-savvy department. After all, he was essentially a money man, dedicated to erasing red ink and putting the city back in the good graces of Wall Street.
But several of the scandals that have rocked his young administration have been all about money. The latest eye-popping incident involves his political strategist, Tom Lindenfeld.
According to Judiciary Square sources, Lindenfeld is peeved about the mayoral re-election committee’s failure to pay $75,000 he billed the committee for political consulting work.
Lindenfeld worked in Williams’ 1998 mayoral campaign. Government sources say he also worked behind the scenes pro bono to support the mayor’s campaign to create a partially elected/partially appointed school board.
Lindenfeld did not return telephone calls to his office. But sources say the consulting bill is related to work Lindenfeld has done since Williams took office, including helping with the 2000 State of the District address, the fiscal 2001 budget message, and a major fundraiser at Democratic Party doyenne Beth Dozoretz’s house, where more than $500,000 in cash and pledges was raised.
Williams had stalled paying Lindenfeld and then suggested that the bill be settled with a partial payment, say government sources. The negotiations were to be conducted by Max Brown, a member of the re-election campaign’s finance committee. Sources say Lindenfeld was willing to reduce his bill to $50,000, but only if he were paid immediately. So far, Lindenfeld has not received his money, and sources say he sent the mayor a letter this week suggesting that he would take legal action if he didn’t get paid. Brown could not be reached for comment. Max Berry, co-chair of the re-election compaign’s finance committee, says that the committee never authorized Lindenfeld’s work.
LL can’t understand why the mayor’s re-election committee, which is up to its eyeballs in moneyit has nearly $600,000, according to its recent campaign finance reportis acting so cheap.Why can’t the committee just fork over the money to Lindenfeld, who has been a fairly faithful ally, even if he did have to be purchased? It’s all a puzzle. Jonetta Rose Barras
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