Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ deputy chief of staff, Mark Jones, needs a refresher course on how to be an effective political operative. He consistently breaks one of the paramount rules of the job: Be felt, not seen. What’s more, although he recently beheaded his own assistant, Thomas Tucker (Loose Lips, 12/22/00), for alleged influence peddling, Jones himself appears to be dancing close to an ethical edge. Jones has permitted the paid staffer of a private firm, which has a city contract that Jones once supervised, to work in his Judiciary Square office on an unrelated project, apparently without following the required formal process for such an assignment.
Jones was hired last April, chiefly to manage the mayor’s community and legislative outreach efforts, which include the Office of Intergovernmental Relations and the Office of the Public Advocatea crucial front-line function that helps Williams maintain constituent support. Yet in nine short months, he has found himself entangled in issues surrounding the poor organization of Williams’ appearance and slate of activities at last year’s Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Moreover, Jones was campaign manager last summer for the mayoral-backed school board referenduma campaign that came under fire for the improper use of government employees and questionable contributions from private donors.
And well-placed District government and civic sources say that for most of last fall, Jones mounted a failed attempt to oust his boss, mayoral Chief of Staff Abdusalam Omer. In that effort, he was allegedly aided by a small cabal that included his “godfathers”Jeff Thompson, a local business leader with strong political connections and contracts with the city, and Joe Yeldell, a former government employee who has served as a consultant to the city’s past mayors. Omer landed on the wrong side of Yeldell, Thompson, and othersmost of whom are cronies of former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.who viewed him as difficult, citing his legendary temper and his unwillingness to provide open access to Williams.
“Do you think Mark would have tried taking on Omer by himself?” asks one executive-branch source.
Jones’ principal assignment, the Office of the Public Advocate, has been in disarray almost since it was created in 1999, witnessing the comings and goings of three different directors and half a dozen “ward coordinators” while never successfully carrying out its mission. (Does anyone remember the mayor’s ward picnics?) The office was designed to build and sustain citizen support for the mayor by fielding service complaints and acting as an advocate for residents who ordinarily would have to negotiate the city’s bureaucracy on their own. Now, however, the role of handling service complaints is being shifted to the newly created neighborhood services managers in the city administrator’s office, leaving the Office of the Public Advocate with a threadbare portfolio. “They’re on that thin line: Are you organizing for political reasons or are you organizing for good government?” asks a government source. Last week, Jones ran into trouble yet again when some D.C. councilmembers and their staffers, and several civic leaders complained about his handling of the distribution of tickets to inaugural-related activities sponsored or hosted by Williams. Along with these complaints have come concerns about Jones’ role in fundraising for various political activities using nonprofit organizations and political-action committees as conduits, thereby conveniently avoiding quick public disclosure of political donations to the mayor.
Now come whisperings that Jones may be headed back to the D.C. Lottery, where, prior to joining the mayor’s staff, he served as deputy director. Jones could return as soon as February to head the agency, say government sources. But before that can happen, Anthony A. Cooper, the agency’s current director, will have to be moved aside. Both Jones and Cooper say they have heard nothing about any change in their employment status.
“No one has had that discussion with me,” says Jones, who gives himself a “B-minus” for his performance as deputy chief of staff.
“There is still a lot of work to do,” Jones adds. “But I am very happy where I am and plan to stay to help support the mayor.”
Except that only a few days earlier, Jones was overheard at Judiciary Square confirming that, in fact, there had been talks about his going to the lotteryand that he would welcome the move.
“That’s more along the line of spiteful and malicious rumors,” says Cooper, who asserts that he “has no plans of leaving.”
But another executive branch source counters, “It’s a done deal.”
A sort of unholy trinity has helped fuel the talks surrounding the staffing switch: First, there is the widely held view that Jones has not demonstrated the talent to perform as a key political operative for Williams, especially as the mayor begins quietly to gear up for his re-election bid. Second, some senior executive branch officials have complained about Cooper’s performance. Third, Leonard Manning, head of Lottery Technologies Enterprises (LTE), which has a major contract with the D.C. Lottery, is dissatisfied with the profits being generated. Manning contributed to Williams’ mayoral campaign.
Cooper took over as head of the city’s lottery agency two years ago, just after the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority seized control of the lottery, disbanding its mayorally appointed board and placing it under the office of the independent chief financial officer (CFO). The financial control board made its move because of concerns about mismanagement of contracts and funds. The lottery plays an important role in the city’s overall fiscal health; its profits are returned to the District’s general operating fund and help finance important programs and projects throughout the government.
But the shift in reporting authority has had very little effect on the bottom line: lottery proceeds. In fiscal year 1998, the agency transferred $81 million to the city’s general fund. By 1999, that amount was down to $64.2 million. And when the final report is made for 2000, revenues are expected to be $69 million. The lottery operation also is being audited by the city’s inspector general, and, government sources say, expect language about the agency to show up in the fiscal year 2000 management letter prepared by independent auditor KPMG LLP. Auditors frequently use management letters to identify weaknesses in the operation of an agency.
Cooper says he is proud of his numbers and his tenure. He says his agency runs one of the best-performing lotteries in the country and calls the approximately $5 million increase between 1999 and 2000 “impressive.” He says he would have to “take issue” with anyone who had a different analysis. LL guesses that means her, because Cooper, being interviewed on his cell phone, says he has just stopped his car and pulled over to the side of the roadwhich is comparable to asking LL to step into the alley. Strange how LL has that effect on government bureaucrats….
The decision whether to replace Cooper is CFO Natwar Gandhi’s to make. Following the standard Washington line, Gandhi’s chief of staff, Stan Jackson, says, “To my knowledge, there have not been any discussions” about removing Cooper, which everyone knows could be interpreted as “I wasn’t in those meetings.” Jackson says that annual evaluations of CFO senior-level staff, including Cooper, are likely to occur within the next 90 days. He says the lottery operation is “very essential to what we do,” and that there has not been “robust growth” in the agency’s revenues. “Certainly our belief is that there is greater potential.”
But this focus on Cooper may be a diversion. It may be the mayor’s way of gracefully disengaging Jonesan operative who does not live in the city, lacks the necessary network of grass-roots contacts critical to any mayoral handler, has not constructed a successful political machine, and has repeatedly found himself in the limelight for all the wrong reasonswhile responding to Manning, a campaign contributor who, sources say, claims to be losing money.
“Mark Jones wouldn’t even know a precinct even if you dropped him right in the middle of one,” says one government source who has worked closely with the deputy chief of staff. “He tried to get in with Marion; he tried to get in with Sharon. He was supposed to be Tony’s religious adviser in the campaign, because his daddy is a minister with that church on 6th Street [Springfield Baptist].
“He wants to play,” the source continues. “But he screws up….”
That view is not held by some associated with the city’s lottery. Take Dennis Adams, the marketing manager for LTE, a configuration of three firms that provide and service equipment for the city’s lottery agency while offering training and assistance with marketing and sales. LTE also held the contract during Jones’ tenure at the lottery.
Adams and Manning like Jones so much that he has, at various times, joined one or both on out-of-town golfing trips and has received tickets to various sporting events, according to executive-branch sources. This at the same time LTE has had a contract with the city. Officials at the Office of Campaign Finance say that any gift with an aggregate value of $100 or more must be reported on annual financial-disclosure statements filed each spring, and moreover, a stricter standard of conduct is required of high-ranking city officials, who are generally prohibited from receiving any gifts from individuals or companies doing business with the city.
More recently, Adams was found working in Jones’ Judiciary Square office in the mayor’s suite on the 11th floor. There is a formal process involving the Office of Personnel that is supposed to be followed by the government whenever private companies provide pro bono services to the Districta process that involves notification of the office to which the private worker is being detailed. But last Friday, key mayoral staff members did not know that Adams was working in Jones’ office, or that Adams was on staff with a private company that has a lucrative contract with the city.
Jones calls Adams and Manning “acquaintances” he met while working at the lottery. He says Adams was “volunteering” in his office “on work related to the inaugural.” Local inaugural planning did not begin until January, yet government sources say that Adams has worked in Jones’ office since Decemberwhich raises a question whether Adams was there only for the inaugural.
Continuing to defend his use of Adams, Jones says the LTE employee has “some skills that I don’t have on my staff.” He says Adams’ unique talents include “organizing printing and working with printers and planning for inaugural events.” LL is confused. Why couldn’t the half-dozen workers in the mayor’s Office of Communications pitch in for this short-term assignment? Who helped organize the printing of those fancy brochures the mayor distributed earlier this month announcing his “mayoral scorecard” accomplishmentswasn’t that done without Adams?
Adams, reached at LTE on Fridaythe day before the inauguralstumbled over answers to questions about who is paying him while he is working for Jones. “Some of it was [compensatory] time, vacation time, personal time.”
Meanwhile, Adams’ boss has been signaling his dissatisfaction with the amount of profit being generated by the lottery, say executive-branch and lottery sources. LTE receives 3.8 cents on every sales dollar; during fiscal year 2000, that came to between $7 million and $10 million, according to officials at the lottery. Before Cooper arrived, Manning’s contract provided that LTE earned 4.5 cents on every sales dollar. A new director could offer an opportunity for Manning to amend or renegotiate LTE’s contract. Manning did not return repeated phone calls to his office last week.
With LTE’s health indirectly tied to sales, LL would think that instead of helping to print and distribute inaugural tickets, Adams would be with Cooper and the folks at the lottery developing a more aggressive marketing strategy and that Jones would understand that the appearance of impropriety is just as dangerous to the mayor as the actual act.
“[Mark] just doesn’t get it,” said one government source. Which leads LL to ask: Will anything change if he’s shipped off to the lottery? Jonetta Rose Barras
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