City Paper is not for tourists
Ulysses B. Hammond cuts the figure of a modern-day CEO in all ways save one. He runs a $128 million organization and manages more than 1,000 employees. They dispense a product that is scarce and expensive, and dramatically affects the lives and bank accounts of roughly 2 million men, women, and children a year.
In the corner of the ground floor of D.C. Superior Court, Hammond has an office suite that would suit any captain of industry—buttressed by a series of secretaries and accessorized with black leather wing-backed chairs. As the executive officer in charge of the day-to-day operations of D.C.’s two local courts, he earns $136,700 a year—the same salary as a member of Congress—and gets chauffeured to his lunch appointments. He wears handsome, pinstriped suits, and when he talks about his organization, like any other late-’90s manager, Hammond is compelled to chant words like “mission,” “customer service,” and “empowerment.”
But instead of the furrowed brow etched into the foreheads of most chief executives, there is a smile on Hammond’s face. Even though the courts are under fire and his management represents the center of the target, he is unflinching in the face of imminent disaster. Whereas executives in the private sector frequently check over their shoulders in fear of that dark and threatening cloud known as accountability, Hammond walks with a light step.
Over the last decade, Hammond has been assailed for budgetary lawlessness, an imperious demeanor, and a money-management system that has left constitutionally mandated functions of the courts unfunded for significant stretches of time. His critics—in the courthouse and on Capitol Hill, in positions high and low—say Hammond is not a very good manager. And what’s worse, they say, is that he doesn’t surround himself with people who are. He has made some questionable personnel decisions during his tenure, fueling a corrosive perception among rank-and-file employees that success at the courts is not measured by merit alone, but rather by how well you know and obey Ulysses B. Hammond.
Although Hammond says his greatest accomplishments at the courts include making them cleaner, friendlier places, others say basic functions have deteriorated over the years. The courts’ dockets are choked with backlogs, the bathrooms are dirty, many of the computers are obsolete, and the delivery of services is inconsistent. At one point earlier this year, for example, Superior Court stopped sending out child-support checks for at least a week. According to employees, the reason for the delay was not a lack of funds or even a computer malfunction—the court had just run out of proper check paper. “Incompetence is really thick over at the courthouse,” says child-support advocate and recipient Jackie Pinckney. “People don’t even know when they should be getting their checks anymore. There’s no pattern; there’s no consistency.”
Last year, the courts up and ran out of money. Hammond and the courts’ two chief judges claimed they’d been shorted $11 million during the congressionally orchestrated transfer of certain responsibilities to the feds. And there are credible sources who say Hammond is right when he complains that Congress underestimated the costs of running the courts. But instead of taking one of many opportunities to set Congress straight, court observers and attorneys say, Hammond has bungled hearing testimony, neglected crucial relationships, and kept problems under wraps until they
morphed into a crisis.
And once the courts shifted into damage-control mode, there was no telling who was going to suffer the consequences. Kids, lawyers, and single parents have all had to balance the courts’ careening budget on their backs. In July 1998, the courts’ leaders decided to make up for the shortfall by cutting off payments to court-appointed defense attorneys for the poor—who represent more than 85 percent of all the defendants in the District. For nearly four months, some 500 attorneys went unpaid, complaining that they could not afford their D.C. bar fees, investigators, and rent, and demanding to know why they were being punished for a budget shortfall they had had nothing to do with creating. Some lawyers were owed in the tens of thousands of dollars.
After years of not-so-benign neglect, the uproar prompted Congress to start looking at the courts as critically as it looks at the rest of District government. In July of this year, the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District issued a report chastising the courts for playing “shell games” with its budget. Two weeks ago, the General Accounting Office (GAO)—ordered last year to investigate the courts’ financial and personnel practices—released a report accusing the courts of violating federal law by overspending their 1998 budget. The courts overshot by $4.6 million, to be exact. Congressional staffers have bandied about the notion of putting the courts in receivership.
Although the courts’ judicial bench is nationally renowned and many of the employees are extremely dedicated, dozens of employees say morale at the courts has been on a steady downward slide. At a recent meeting with Hammond and the five judges who make up the Joint Committee on Judicial Administration, employees filled the aisles to vent their outrage. Nancy Cohen, a 23-year courts employee from the personnel division, stood up to read her carefully prepared statement. Cohen, who had not been known to make waves before, complained bitterly about a “lack of leadership.”
“There was never a moment when I believed that you understood issues of parity and fairness,” Cohen told the assembled judges and Hammond, according to comments later obtained by Washington City Paper. Among other problems, she complained of “personnel decisions being made without regard to policies,” “reorganizations spontaneously conceived and implemented,” and “friends and families hired without regard to qualifications.”
The chief judges and the rest of the Joint Committee (of which Hammond is a nonvoting member) are all responsible for overseeing the courts, but Hammond has historically had the most hands-on control and understanding of how the place works. In her statement, Cohen complained that a lack of communication between Hammond and the chief judges had hurt the courts. “It is under your watch that the court has deteriorated,” Cohen said. “You have a choice: Put aside your internal issues with each other, get honest with the situation and be responsible leaders and administrators, or leave the administration of the courts to others who will.”
In August, two people who had held senior positions at the courts filed suits against the Joint Committee. John Andrews, former chief adviser to the courts’ fiscal officer, claims he was demoted after complaining to Hammond and the courts’ fiscal officer about discrimination in his division. Andrews, who still works at the courts’ finance office, earns $29,000 less in his current job than he did before. Barbara Kundrat, former deputy clerk of Superior Court, accuses the courts of gender and race discrimination in her lawsuit. Kundrat, who is white, resigned from the courts last year. “There were the policies that existed. Then there was this whole shadow structure, which was what really happened,” Kundrat says of the courts’ personnel practices. “There’s not an open atmosphere….And certainly you never, never cross Ulysses Hammond.”
Hammond declines to discuss specifics about the courts’ recent troubles on the record. But his defenders say he is doing a very difficult job as well as can be expected. “As a frequent visitor to the courts, I think the service is excellent,” says Keith Watters, an attorney and former president of the D.C. Bar Association. “I think [Hammond’s] got a stellar reputation for honesty and competency.” And Hammond’s supporters claim that he couldn’t have made any major decisions without the chief judges’ consent.
But others say that the judges have little actual understanding of the courts’ budget and operations. Says one Hill staffer: “Hammond is sort of the Radar O’Reilly of the court system—whereby he brings a stack of papers to the [judges] to sign, and they don’t know what they’re signing.” Staffers say they direct most of their inquiries to Hammond, because the chief judges generally defer to him for specifics anyway.
Many people interviewed for this story requested that their names be kept out of the paper. Employees say that retaliation is a time-honored tradition at the courts. “They attack a person who raises an issue,” Kundrat says. In 1996, Hammond temporarily suspended Deputy Administrative Officer Mike Lusby, claiming he had spoken to a City Paper reporter about problems at the courts. Soon afterward, Lusby quit his job after working at the courts for over 26 years.
Says one attorney who practices in Superior Court: “If there’s one thing that the court can do efficiently, it’s punish people.”
The enduring mystery, then, is why Ulysses Hammond is still there.
Hammond serves at the pleasure of the courts’ ruling judges. Chief Judge Eugene Hamilton and Court of Appeals Chief Judge Annice Wagner would both have to agree to oust Hammond, along with one other member of the Joint Committee. Privately, some judges and courts employees have suggested that Hammond should step down. But so far, the chief judges appear to be standing by Hammond—although they would not return phone calls from a City Paper reporter.
A Hill staffer familiar with D.C. courts says that to regain credibility in Congress, the courts must make a series of changes. No. 1 on that list, the staffer says, is to remove Hammond: “I think that the problems with the court are about 80 to 90 percent his fault….He is the person in charge of the administration of the courts.”
Come February, when Hammond reaches the 10-year vesting point for his pension, he could click his heels and disappear with half his salary guaranteed to follow him for life. Speculation abounds at the courthouse as to whether he will leave. Yet Hammond, 48, says he has not made any plans to retire. “That is totally in God’s hands,” he says.
Even though his name keeps coming up in critical coverage of the courts in the Washington Post and elsewhere, Hammond says he is not bitter about the recent scrutiny. “I don’t feel scapegoated,” he says. “It is part of my profession to accept the responsibility for whatever happens with respect to the institution.”
But at the same time, Hammond continues to deny that there are serious problems at the courts. Along with the rest of the Joint Committee, he claims that the culpability lies with Congress for not giving the courts enough money. Hammond rightly points out that the courts have already adopted some of the changes recommended by the GAO. But so far, he has yet to take responsibility for major problems or propose wholesale reform. Instead of stepping up to Congress and owning his share of the blame, Hammond has hunkered down, doling out information to Congress in occasionally erroneous and incomplete responses. “They’re taking baby steps now that would have been helpful a year ago,” says one federal staffer. “Baby steps will never be effective now.”
In a system with 1,250 employees and 68 judges, not all of the blame lies on Hammond’s desk. And even if he left, the problems would linger. Hammond clearly shares culpability for the courts’ current embarrassments with Hamilton and Wagner—who are technically his bosses.
But Hammond personifies many of the problems at the courts. Despite the historic dearth of accountability in D.C.’s municipal agencies, Hammond does not hold on to his job because he works for the government. He perseveres because he works for the courts—a separate and distinct entity of the District’s government with a culture as out of touch with reality as a glassed-in Smithsonian relic.
The courts were designed to be isolated from the rest of the city government, as any good judicial branch should be. But over time, their independence has turned into insularity. Until recently, few people noticed the problems. But just like in any courtroom drama, where lots of reassuring ceremony unfolds in front of the bench but the really big decisions get made in private, many of the courts’ most important activities have happened out of public view.
And what was once a shining example of what the D.C. government could be has devolved into just another branch of the D.C. government. Not unlike former Mayor Marion S. Barry, Hammond has been accused of turning a city bureaucracy into a bloated, inefficient, and secretive organization—a place where people who should be let go remain, where services that should be cut linger on. And, not unlike Barry, Hammond has now lost credibility with the powers that be in Congress, creating the impossible situation wherein even when he’s right, few people on the Hill will believe him.
Eventually, just about every D.C. resident must enter the unsightly box of concrete at Judiciary Square known as Superior Court. You’re either called for jury duty, caught for drunk driving, or trying to recover the $475.63 you spent fixing your car after your landlord rammed it with his pickup. Created in 1971, Superior Court is the District’s one-stop justice center, handling everything from Murder 1 to divorce. The D.C. Court of Appeals, housed in the same building, serves as the city’s court of last resort.
For decades, the court system was the favorite child of the D.C. government—the one branch that functioned relatively well and got most everything it asked for. The courts were respected, well-funded, and pretty much left to their own devices.
Even though the money came from the D.C. Treasury until 1997, the courts had the luxury of submitting their budgets directly to Congress. “We rubber-stamped their budgets until now,” concedes one congressional staffer, who has since learned better. A 1995 congressional appropriations conference report on the District congratulated the courts on their relative worth: “The District’s judicial branch of government is one of the better managed entities in the District government. All personnel including those in supervisory roles appear to be well-trained and dedicated to excellence.”
Perhaps because the courts were operating against a backdrop of such chaos in the rest of District government, serious emerging problems didn’t get much notice. Still, the courts’ superiority complex was hard to miss (“The Imperial Court,” 1/12/96). In 1995, faced with a crushing financial crisis, the city government slashed its budget by 5 percent across the board. Naturally, the D.C. Council requested the same sacrifice from the city’s courts, looking to save an estimated $5 million. But to the council’s surprise, the courts declined, politely, to take the hit.
At a 1995 council Judiciary Committee hearing, then-Councilmember William Lightfoot was shocked by the courts’ audacity. “Why is the court so different that you don’t have to participate?” he asked Hammond, Hamilton, and Wagner. “When everybody else is sharing in the pain of the budget crisis, your employees should have to, as well. There’s an issue of fairness here,” Lightfoot said, according to a Legal Times story.
The courts’ leadership deflected the criticism by invoking the courts’ special status as an independent branch of government—an explanation that Hammond frequently offers and that partially accounts for the courts’ Teflon track record. The courts’ managers did not want to be punished for dysfunction in other branches of government.
The councilmembers went crazy when the courts stiffed their request to take one for the team, but there wasn’t much they could do about it. They could recommend changes, but only Congress could make them happen. And usually, members of Congress deferred to the judges—whose appointments the Senate had confirmed and with whom Congress had enjoyed a long-standing laissez-faire relationship.
Even so, in the same conference report that lauded the courts’ track record, congressional appropriators ever so gently questioned the courts’ self-absorption: “While the conferees understand the need for independence by the District’s judicial branch of government, the conferees also expect its full cooperation…in addressing the District’s financial crisis.” But in the final analysis, the courts remained exempt from the painful cuts felt in all other corners of the government.
That same year, Hammond and Wagner managed to successfully lobby Congress to exempt the courts from the reach of the newly created D.C. financial control board. Legislative language guaranteed that the courts’ budget and organization would remain independent. “There’s such a culture of isolation in that institution that it’s going to take a real sea change to open it up,” says Sam Harahan, head of the nonprofit Council for Court Excellence—the gentle watchdog of the D.C. courts.
The first tremors to hit the courts came in 1997, when the D.C. Revitalization Act took effect. The act transferred funding responsibility for both Superior Court and the Court of Appeals from the District to the federal government. The courts were expected to benefit from receiving federal dollars only. No longer would they be dependent on the less-than-stable D.C. Treasury.
But the courts’ leaders very quickly learned that there was a steep price to be paid for the changeover. Suddenly, members of Congress started paying more attention to Hammond and the chief judges when they came before their committees. And, as staffers of the Supreme Court and other federal courthouses can attest, Congress has not been exceedingly generous in recent years when it comes to judicial funding. “The [current] funding problems have nothing to do with the leadership of the court,” Harahan insists. “The courts have entered an entirely new arena, with a completely different set of rules.”
But following the changeover, Harahan concedes, “the courts were not being as forthcoming as they could have.” Before, the D.C. courts had the best of both worlds—they were funded by one government, overseen by another, and answerable to no one. Naturally, the feds take a keener interest in where the money goes now that it is their money. And Superior Court has had trouble adapting.
Over at the D.C. Council, staffers are hardly shocked and saddened to witness the courts’ fall from grace. “They’ve historically shifted money around at the end of the year, much to our dismay,” says one council staffer. “The council’s never really had enough control over [the courts’] budget to take them to task, so I think they got used to that. And now they got tripped up.”
Hammond’s most glorious day on the job may have been his first. He was sworn in on Feb. 13, 1990, with his mother, brothers, and friends all around him, welcoming him home. He’d left the District to work in Michigan’s courts for 12 years. But Hammond had grown up in Barry Farms in Southeast D.C. He’d attended Lovejoy Elementary and McKinley Tech High School.
As a boy, Hammond had spent his weekends shuttling up and down the East Coast, revival-hopping with his evangelizing family. Hammond’s mother was a minister at Corinthian Baptist Church at 5th and I Streets NW, not far from the courthouse. His father was a deacon. Together, they had nine children, of whom Ulysses Hammond was the oldest son. It was a proud day for the Hammond family when he became the first black man to administer an appellate and general-jurisdiction court system in the country.
The Rev. Eliza Hammond, age 70, gave a stirring benediction at her son’s swearing-in ceremony. A quintet of Hammond’s brothers and friends sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Afterward, Hammond told Legal Times that he was “ready to go to work and get my hands dirty.”
Part of the reason Hammond got the court executive job was that he was a hometown-boy-made-good. When the D.C. job opened up, he seized the opportunity to return—in splendor. “Being able to come back and serve my community in this capacity has been a dream come true,” he says, even now.
The Joint Committee looked at more than 50 applicants before deciding on Hammond, according to a 1989 courts press release. “He comes to the District of Columbia courts highly recommended by a broad cross-section of professionals in Michigan,” reads the release. After receiving a law degree and a master’s in public administration from Wayne State University in Detroit, Hammond worked his way up in court administration posts—first at Wayne County Circuit Court and then heading up the child-support office for the state. His most impressive assignment was associate state court administrator for the Michigan Supreme Court. But when he got the job with the D.C. courts, he’d held that position for only three months.
Despite the Joint Committee’s due diligence, sources familiar with Hammond’s tenure in Michigan say they were surprised to hear of Hammond’s new job title in the District. “He was not detail-oriented,” remembers one such person. “He was good at the protocol of his jobs and putting a good face on things, but he was not very good on follow-through.”
Marilyn K. Hall, the former state court administrator in Michigan, says she promoted Hammond at least once and had no major problems with him. But she agrees that he was not exactly a detail man: “I would say he’s more of a big-picture person.”
Of course, Hammond does not necessarily need to sweat the details to do his job well. But he does have to hire people who do. “He’s the kind of person who has to have very competent, very capable people working under him,” says one Michigan source.
And that’s the kind of staff Hammond encountered when he came to the courts, according to many court employees and observers. During a time when every other arm of the local government was showing up in late-night jokes, Hammond walked into a court system with a national reputation. That’s not to say his job was enviable: D.C.’s courts are some of the busiest in the nation, and unlike most courts, they have to manage both municipal and state judicial functions. “There is no system that I know of in the United States that has that breadth of responsibilities. It is unique,” says Suzanne H. James, court administrator for the 7th Judicial Circuit of Maryland and a former employee of the D.C. courts.
But people who have worked in the courts both before and after Hammond’s arrival say that instead of building on that foundation of success, he set about dismantling it. Observers suggest that he was more concerned about looking after people he knew than finding people who would competently oversee the courts’ mandates. The evidence to support those claims is mostly anecdotal, but it is a broadly held view within the courts.
Beyond allegations—and they are just that—of personal favoritism, longtime observers of the courts are not impressed by some of the people Hammond has hired. In 1995, he selected Bruce A. Marshall to head the courts’ Administrative Services Division, in charge of information, communications, building operations, and procurement—some of the courts’ weakest areas. Marshall earns at least $80,000 a year, and Hammond is his immediate boss. Soon after Marshall’s arrival, the word spread among courts employees that Hammond and Marshall were old friends from high school. Although Marshall denies that they were friends at the time, he concedes that both men graduated from McKinley within one year of each other.
Before he came to the courts, Marshall was director of the District’s Department of Administrative Services—heading up many of the same functions he would run for the courts. But his two-year record with the city was lackluster.
Twice during his tenure, Marshall signed off on extensions of a questionable and expensive lease for a city building that wasn’t even built yet, according to Washington Post accounts. The lease was with contractor Yong Yun, who surfaced at the center of a Marion Barry controversy in 1995 after it was revealed that Yun had helped renovate the mayor’s house in addition to holding the $17.6 million lease with the city.
The city’s auditor and inspector general skewered the Department of Administrative Services’ abysmal procurement practices during Marshall’s tenure. In 1994, Marshall signed off on a decision to switch long-distance service for city pay phones without conducting a competitive bidding process, according to a Post story. He told the Post that the decision was made to earn more revenue for the District, but he could not produce any documentation to back up his claim, according to the article. Nine months after he approved the contract, city officials learned that the carrier was charging some customers up to five times as much as the previous company, and they canceled the agreement.
Marshall defends his tenure at the Department of Administrative Services, calling it a “good deal” for the citizens of the District. He says the Yong Yun lease “made economic sense because all the players of the city wanted it to happen, and we had a consensus that this was the best approach.” As for the pay phone contract, Marshall says he can’t remember whether there was a competitive bidding process. But he says the deal increased revenue for the city at a time when the District was desperate for cash.
Ben Propps worked in the courts’ administrative division when Marshall was still working for the city. Propps’ office had to get Marshall’s approval for certain major projects. “[Marshall] was well-known not to know anything and be in well over his head there,” Propps recalls. He says Marshall’s office was like a “big black hole….We finally just started doing things by ourselves. We started bypassing the city and doing our own contracts.” Propps says that he was less than elated when he learned that Marshall would be moving over to the courts to be his new boss. And other former and current court employees say Marshall has earned a reputation for inefficiency at the courts. “He is known to totally stop work,” says one former employee.
Hammond flatly denies that personal connections influence his personnel decisions: “I treat everybody the same. I treat them the way I would want to be treated. That’s the way I was raised.” And he rigorously defends Marshall’s tenure at the courts. “Bruce has been a very dedicated, committed, diligent, and innovative administrator and manager,” Hammond says. “We’re very particular about making sure that we get the best people we can.”
One of the things Hammond says he is most proud of accomplishing is professionalizing the courts’ recruitment and promotions policies—or, as he puts it, “getting away from the system whereby a number of employees were being hired according to who they knew and who they are related to.”
Regardless of the reasons behind his hiring, Marshall’s tenure has been marked by the departure of multiple employees well-regarded by high-level sources at the courts. Deputy Administrative Officer Lusby left in 1996. The next year, Ryland Sutton quit his post as facilities manager. Sutton had worked for the courts for seven years, but he says Marshall’s obsession with controlling everything that went on in his division slowed down the system and poisoned morale. “It just got to the point where you came to work and were looking over your shoulder, wondering where the next dagger was coming from,” Sutton says.
But Marshall says that what some people call micromanaging is actually careful tracking. “There is definitely increased accountability as to where the courts’ dollars and products go,” Marshall says of his tenure at the courts. And he says there’s nothing special about his relationship with Hammond. “It’s a mischaracterization for people to think it’s other than a business friendship.”
Another senior-level staffer under Hammond, Ellen Marshall (no relation), insists that Hammond does not play favorites. “He’s been very objective, as far as I can see,” says Marshall, director of training and education at the courts. “He knows how to assemble a competent team of individuals around him.”
Hammond’s critics have also raised questions about his treatment of employees with criminal backgrounds. Sherman Bunch says he grew up with Hammond in Southeast. Before he came to work at Superior Court as a telecommunications technician earning at least $30,000, Bunch was arrested three times, according to court records. In the late ’80s, Bunch was incarcerated for possession with intent to distribute PCP, marijuana, and heroin. According to court policies, Hammond has to approve all applicants with serious criminal records—including Bunch, who says he came to the courts seven years ago.
Since he started working at the court, Bunch was arrested once again—on Oct. 14, 1998, for attempting to pass a counterfeit $100 bill. According to an affidavit signed by Secret Service Agent Kenneth R. Beauchamp, Bunch tried to pay for dinner at the America restaurant in Union Station with the phony bill on the night of June 27, 1998. Bunch now says he had no idea that the bill was counterfeit. But three days after the arrest, according to the document, Bunch told Beauchamp that he had received the bill during a game of craps earlier that night and, after recognizing that it was counterfeit, attempted to use it at a local liquor store and then again at the restaurant. The charges were dropped on June 14 of this year after Bunch agreed to stay away from the restaurant and perform 40 hours of community service.
Hammond stands by the decision to hire and retain Bunch. “He was arrested, and the charges were dropped,” Hammond says, adding that he considers the seriousness of the charges in addition to the nature of an employee’s job when making such determinations. In general, says Bunch, “[Hammond] helps anybody and everybody he can. He’s a helpful person.”
Perhaps Hammond’s tendency to sympathize with troubled souls explains why Carroll Boswell still has a ranking position at the courthouse. Boswell oversees juvenile probation supervisors. Five years ago, Boswell pleaded guilty to a drunk-driving offense in Prince George’s County. He was given a $500 fine and a year on probation. In August 1997, he was arrested again—this time for driving while intoxicated while behind the wheel of a court vehicle. He was pulled over on the 2500 block of Naylor Road SE at 1:20 a.m. The charges were dropped after Boswell agreed to enroll in a diversion program, according to court records.
A DWI arrest shouldn’t be a death sentence to an employee’s career, but the government vehicle makes it a more serious matter. Hammond confirms that Boswell was not supposed to take a court vehicle home, but says that he decided to suspend Boswell for two weeks instead of terminating him. By contrast, John A. “Jay” Carver III, the federal trustee in charge of court services and offender supervision, says that if one of his probation officers got arrested for drunk driving in a court vehicle he was not authorized to have taken, the decision would have been obvious: “Given those hypothetical facts, I would be hard pressed to come up with a justification not to fire somebody.”
Boswell denies that he was driving drunk and claims that he had not had any alcohol in the two hours prior to his 1997 arrest. He adds that he did not know at the time that he was not authorized to have the court vehicle. “That particular incident was an embarrassment to me totally, but I think the court treated me fairly,” he says. “If anything, I think the punishment was a little harsh.”
Regardless of whether Hammond has a good heart or a weakness for human weakness, the perception among many employees is that Hammond’s personnel decisions are suspect. Last week, the Washington Times reported that one of the courts’ other juvenile probation supervisors had kept her job after being arrested on narcotics charges and accused of having had a seven-year relationship with a drug dealer. The courts placed Denise Bush Williams on unpaid administrative leave after she was arrested, according to the article, but the charges were eventually dropped and she was permitted to return to work. Following the Times story, Williams was transferred to an administrative post pending the results of a court investigation.
“When an employee is arrested, we conduct a review of the matter,” Hammond says. “And if in fact there has been a probable-cause determination made as to whether that employee may have committed a crime, we put that employee on leave without pay until that matter is resolved.”
Hammond has a round face rendered gentler still by his wire-framed glasses and slightly high-pitched voice. He maintains scrupulous eye contact and smiles reflexively. Most people—even Hammond’s biggest critics—confirm that he is a nice man and an extremely hard worker. He says he works 16-hour days and many weekends. Talking to him in his office one recent evening, I find it hard to believe that this quiet, affable man could be one of the main problems in a court system full of them.
But then again, it’s quite an office. Soon after coming to the courts, Hammond gutted his predecessor’s work space. He spent thousands on renovations, fueling the first of many whispered questions about his priorities. He replaced the faux-wood paneling and generic office furniture with plush mauve carpeting and a labyrinth of new offices and cubes. The receptionists sit behind a high-walled, blond-wood barrier, while Hammond’s own office lies at the end of the maze, farthest from the hallway entrance. It is decorated with dark wood, recessed lighting, and flowing drapery. Framed degrees and honors deck the walls. There are a conference table, a sitting area, and, finally, his desk—which is covered at the moment with cards from friends wishing him strength in these turbulent times.
Hammond’s critics claim he is more interested in the trappings of power than in using it to advance the work of the courts. They point to his decision to hire a new communications officer in 1995 to do what he had previously done himself. Margaret Summers earns a salary of at least $45,000 a year. She may be a very competent person, but the office doesn’t spend a lot of time servicing the needs of the press. In a city where phone calls from reporters aren’t generally government’s highest priority, the courts are singularly unresponsive. Reporters often gripe among themselves about the courts’ inaccessibility.
But Summers takes to other parts of her job with gusto. One of her major tasks is to churn out flattering press releases for the courts—including one in April 1995 announcing that Kenyon College, Hammond’s alma mater, had awarded him an honorary doctoral degree.
Following that ceremony, employees say Hammond asked them to call him “Doctor” and started signing his memos “Dr. Hammond.”
Although Hammond characterizes his management style as “participatory, inclusive, and open,” he has a reputation among many court employees for jealously guarding authority. “From early on, there was this pattern of him wanting more control,” says a veteran court employee. “He micromanages practically everything.”
“Looking at Hammond on the surface—and even if you’re in there—he seems to be a really hard worker for the courts,” says former employee Ryland Sutton. “But he’s building this power base around him that does what he wants [it] to do.”
According to current and former employees, Hammond has brought many court functions more directly under his control during his tenure, including clerk of the court oversight, building maintenance, grants writing, and probation officers’ training.
An August GAO report concluded that the courts’ staffing-level decisions “could be more rigorous.” Full-time staffing levels at Superior Court have declined over the last 10 years, according to the report. Court of Appeals staffing waned at the beginning of the decade but has remained relatively constant ever since. But Hammond’s division—also known as the Court System—has seen a staff increase almost every year. Last year, the number of staffers was more than 50 percent higher than that of 1989—the year before Hammond arrived. The Court System’s budget has increased by over $20 million over the same time period, according to the courts’ annual reports. At the same time, with the exception of a 1996 spike in misdemeanors, the number of cases filed at the courts has been steadily declining.
Former Deputy Administrative Officer Propps worked at the courts for 17 years. He left in 1994 because of Hammond, he says. “I didn’t like the way that he operated,” Propps adds. “After he came on board, the culture was just completely different. If you didn’t do things his way, you were just left in the corner somewhere.”
Hammond’s predecessor, Larry Polansky, held the job for 11 years and practiced a management style quite different from Hammond’s. “When Polansky was there, Polansky would have his door open. You’d see him in there working,” remembers a former court employee. “Hammond is completely isolated—which suits his insular style.”
From his home in Pennsylvania, Polansky confirms that his was more of an open-door style, literally and figuratively. “Anyone could come see me and talk about anything they wanted,” he says. And he had the same attitude toward his overseers. “In dealing with the feds and the council, you really have to be open,” he remembers. “If a congressional staffer asked a question, we gave them an answer—the best, most honest answer we could find, and they respected that.”
To get Congress’ cooperation, Polansky says, the court executive must work very hard to establish good relations—not so much with the members as with their staffers. It doesn’t take many calls to the Hill to sense the antagonism generated by Hammond’s style. “I don’t believe that he understands the extent to which he is not believed on the Hill,” says one staffer.
Senior Judge Bruce Beaudin retired from Superior Court in 1994 as an active judge, but still sits occasionally as requested by Chief Judge Hamilton. Beaudin confirms that he was at one point interested in the position of court executive, but he lost the job to Hammond. That was 10 years ago. Now, he says, he is saddened by the courts’ fading credibility: “It’s too bad that, apparently, Uly Hammond did not have the time to establish the relationships with congressional staff, with the [federal] Office of Management and Budget, and with his own people within the system. [Those relationships] are absolutely critical to providing the information and communication necessary to handle this kind of a job.”
It often appears as if the courts operate in a parallel universe—safely removed from the Hill, other city agencies, and the rest of reality. In April 1998, for example, an Office of Management and Budget official sent an ominous letter to Hammond, warning that the courts appeared to be on track to blow past their fiscal 1998 budget—risking a violation of the federal Anti-Deficiency Act. Yet the courts continued to operate as if the money would somehow materialize.
Sure enough, that summer, the courts ran out of money. Instead of shutting down or furloughing employees—admittedly unpleasant prospects—the courts stopped paying appointed attorneys for the indigent. For weeks and then months, the attorneys went without. The judges’ chauffeur and towel services continued unabated, as did the expensive court-reporting functions (which are redundant, given that the courts tape proceedings), but many poor defendants undoubtedly got less attention as certain lawyers focused on other—paying—clients. Around the same time, and despite all of the tension building around him, Hammond announced a 7 percent pay raise for more than 1,000 employees—without congressional approval.
Hammond presumably felt justified in blowing budgets and unilaterally granting raises because he remained convinced that Congress had unfairly cut the courts’ funding in 1997. Under the Revitalization Act, $20 million was shifted to the newly established federal Office of the Trustee, in charge of adult probation, pretrial services, and the parole board. But Hammond argued that the services transferred over to that office should have cost only $12 million and that the courts needed the remaining $8 million to function.
Carver, the trustee in charge of the new office, met with Hammond at least a dozen times to debate the cost estimate. “Naturally, all the details of such a transfer were not spelled out in the legislation, and we had to work them out with the court through a memorandum of understanding,” Carver says, calling the process “long and tedious.”
Hill staffers asked Hammond to formally make his case that a larger part of the funding stream belonged to the courts, but he never came up with any documented justification, according to people who dealt with his request on the Hill. By comparison, “Carver’s office’s analysis was very good,” says one staffer. For the first time, the staffer recalls, “[Hammond] was faced with someone else sitting down and doing the accounting to counter what he would say.”
Eventually, Carver did try to meet Hammond halfway. “As time went on, and we assembled more accurate payroll data, we eventually determined that the estimated cost of adult probation was high,” Carver says, explaining that the courts were due back some money. In 1998, Carver wrote Congress, requesting that the feds return $1.7 million to the courts, which they did. That same year, pursuant to the original agreement, Carver’s office reimbursed the courts for another $8.9 million for payroll and administrative support costs.
“[Fiscal year] 1998 was a tough year on all of us, but, fortunately, it is water over the dam,” says Carver. “Our mission is to support the court, and we are working very well together in many areas.”
But Hammond and other court defenders have continued to complain that they did not receive enough money back from the feds. “I think the court genuinely was shorted financially,” says Harahan, of the Council for Court Excellence.
Meanwhile, on the Hill, members of Congress looked to prevent a repeat of the pay stoppage by ordering the GAO investigation and demanding that the courts separate out funding for the lawyers’ fees in their fiscal 1999 budget. Staffers said they felt confident the courts were on the right track. On Feb. 3 of this year, Rep. James Moran Jr. (D-Va.) and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) met with Chief Judge Hamilton to get reassurances that he would improve the courts’ management. Hammond was not invited to the meeting—a fact that many at the courthouse took to mean that his tight control of the courts’ operations was beginning to slip.
But on May 18, the polite dialogue with the Hill abruptly ceased after a disastrous appropriations hearing with Hammond and the judges. Days before the hearing, members of Congress had received a court document gathered during the GAO’s investigation indicating that money for the court-appointed lawyers had not—after all—been set aside as promised. It appeared that the courts were planning to ignore Congress’ orders and use expected revenue to pay the lawyers. When the members asked Hammond to explain the document, he gamely defended it.
Clearly exasperated, Moran and Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.) questioned how—so soon after overspending their 1998 budget and halting payments to lawyers for the poor—the courts could be risking a repeat performance. “I don’t understand why this is happening,” said a baffled Moran, according to news accounts from the hearing.
After Hammond and the judges went back to their offices, they realized the document was inaccurate. The next day, Judge Wagner sent an updated budget document to Congress explaining that the other document—and Hammond’s testimony defending it—was incorrect and that the money had indeed been set aside. But the damage was done. The alarming press accounts had already run. And the fact that Hammond could make such a massive error—coupled with confusion over the source of the inaccurate budget document—shattered the already fragile relations between the Hill and the courts.
In the wake of the debacle over the lawyers’ fees, the courts were not quick to recover. In August, Judge Hamilton issued a memo stating that—due to budgetary constraints—the courts were suspending counseling for more than a hundred children and families struggling with abuse, delinquency, and other troubles. The chief judge’s memo vowed that counseling would be cut off for the next seven weeks. Counselors began to cancel their appointments accordingly.
Three days later, Hammond told a Post reporter that counseling services had merely been “reduced.” The next week, Hammond confirmed that the program had been suspended, but said the cutoff had only lasted nine days and had, in fact, already resumed. Happy news, indeed—although probation officers, counselors, judges, parents, and kids had not been told, according to the article. Finally, on Sept. 1, court staff received a memo stating that funding for counseling would recommence immediately.
All in all, the transaction was a study in cluelessness and miscommunication. If some of the city’s most vulnerable people hadn’t been jerked around in the process, it would have been farcical.
Only days later, the courts once again stopped paying lawyers for the poor. This time, court officials said they were short $1 million. Although the courts had asked for $31.9 million for the lawyers’ fees and received $31.9 million from Congress, court officials had apparently underestimated the costs of paying the attorneys. At Hammond’s request, Congress included a provision in the District’s budget bill to allow the courts to use $1.2 million in accumulating interest to pay the lawyers. But that bill was vetoed by the president for other, unrelated reasons earlier this week.
Hammond has told staffers and attorneys that he has other money available from cost-saving measures to pay the attorneys but is awaiting congressional approval. Although Moran has informed Hammond that he has the authority to reprogram those funds, Hammond says he’s waiting for written permission. And in any event, the money would reportedly cover only about half of the amount owed.
As he did last year, Hammond has proposed that the courts make up for the cash shortage by spending money designated for crime victims. He circulated draft legislation that would allow the courts to use about $6 million from the victims’ compensation fund for computers and staff, at the courts’ discretion. His idea fell flat in Congress.
At press time, the defense attorneys were still not getting paid. And Colin Dunham, president of the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association, is not holding his breath for Hammond’s next promise. “I find his credibility suspect,” Dunham says.
Dunham has been involved with the Trial Lawyers Association since 1993—serving as president or vice president for all but one of those years. In all that time, Hammond has shown little interest in building relations with the lawyers, Dunham says: “Until last year, I had never had any dealings with Mr. Hammond. He had never come to any meetings. He had never contacted the trial lawyers in any way that I knew of. We were never informed of any decisions that the court made—decisions that affected us or the court generally.” In May, Hammond spoke to the association’s board members and assured them that their pay would not be cut off this year. “He said everything would be fine,” Dunham says.
Within the month, Hammond had reversed his position, informing Dunham that there might be a little problem on the horizon. Four months later, the pay trickled to a stop.
Within the next week, congressional appropriators plan to send a letter to the courts requesting a response to the GAO’s conclusion that the courts had violated federal law by overspending their budget. Hill staffers say they are hoping the courts will indicate who is to blame for the foul-up, but court sources say it is more likely that Hammond and the chief judges will effectively stonewall, maintaining that no law has been violated. It’s a strategy that could have some very serious consequences. Says one staffer: “If they contend that they have not had an Anti-Deficiency situation, we up here on the Hill are going to be looking at what form of management the courts need. And that could go as far as putting a trustee in charge of the courts.”
The next D.C. appropriations subcommittee hearing is scheduled for April, and Hill staffers say they hope that the courts will have demonstrated a serious commitment to change and be able to point to remediation of past problems. But for the time being, Hammond seems content to circle the wagons and stick with his story about congressional underfunding.
Until recently, Hammond has enjoyed a life under the radar. While his bosses weren’t looking, he consolidated his power, discouraged challenges from within, and perpetuated some bad money-management habits. And the courts’ unique status as a District-funded agency that answered only to the Hill kept problems from seeing the light of day.
But when the congressional jury delivers its verdict this spring, the courts’ decisions to ignore the hard and fast rules tied to federal monies may eventually undo Hammond. So far, ensconced at Superior Court, Hammond doesn’t seem worried. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Jonathan Weiner.