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The top D.C. official standing before reporters this past Monday pulled off an impeccable impersonation of Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. The resemblance was so striking, in fact, that LL expected the official to pull out a hanky to mop the sweat on his brow, deliver a few lines on redemption, and head off to tour another African country. Borrowing pages from Hizzoner’s manual on no-fault leadership, the official tried to gloss over the latest bad news: millions of tax dollars wasted and procurement laws violated in last summer’s chaotic effort to repair and replace school roofs.
The official had also mastered a couple of classic Barry standbys: exonerating subordinates responsible for the waste and mismanagement and escaping blame himself. City taxpayers might have found the Barry impersonation more amusing had the impersonator not been D.C. financial control board chairman Andrew Brimmer, head of the self-styled “authority” installed by Congress nearly three years ago to end Barry’s Teflon style of governance and hold government managers accountable.
Before a bank of TV cameras, Brimmer muddled through the fine print of an audit revealing that school officials had overspent on roof repairs by an estimated $7.8-9.4 million. Anyone listening to Brimmer’s response to an audit by Cotton & Co. would have guessed that the control board is just now getting around to addressing decades-old problems in D.C. schools.
Though he has built a new career out of harping on the D.C. government for its legendary lack of accountability, Brimmer refused to admit that the board had failed to hold schools chief Gen. Julius Becton’s feet to the fire after picking him to replace ousted school superintendent Franklin Smith 14 months ago. Nor would Brimmer comment on the defiance of Becton and school facilities head Gen. Charles Williams toward the auditors, D.C. Superior Court Judge Kaye Christian, and anyone else who got in their way.
According to this week’s audit report and school administration sources, Becton, Williams, and other top school officials did everything they could to thwart the auditors, who were hired by the control board. In a lame attempt to hide their misfeasance, the officials withheld records needed to determine just how much the schools system’s outlays for roof replacements and repairs had exceeded standard contract prices.
Cotton & Co. executives have a lot in common with Christian, who encountered D.C. Public School’s attitude in last year’s legal battle over school safety sparked by a lawsuit brought by the Parents United school reform advocacy group. “Their standard operating procedure is to fall into a defensive posture,” notes one Becton administration source. “They don’t say, ‘Yeah, you’ve got a point there.’ They say, ‘You’re wrong. We hate you.’”
Yes, these are two grown menBecton and Williamswe’re discussing here, not to mention former top military leaders of the country and, in Becton’s case, former head of the federal agency in charge of emergency response to disasters. If Becton and Williams had been in charge during the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein might be running the United Nations by now instead of playing hide-and-seek with U.N. inspectors.
And even Saddam himself would be envious of the scheme that the former uniforms concocted last year.
Last summer, when Christian was ordering Becton and Williams to close schools during roof repairs, the two sought to force a showdown with the judge. Williams asked Washington Gas to begin boiler replacements and repairs in defiance of Christian’s order that such work had to be approved by her beforehand. Williams calculated that once the obstinate judge learned of his plan, she would overreact and toss Becton in jail for contempt, according to a school administration official.
Following the logic behind this scheme requires something more than military intelligence. DCPS brass hoped that Becton’s jailing would turn the school chief into a martyr, bringing unbearable pressure upon Parents United to drop its lawsuit and thereby remove Christian’s power over the school system. However, the control board got wind of the plan and killed it before word got back to the judge, according to control board officials.
Becton should be grateful for the cooler heads at the control board. Most D.C. school parents would have cheered at the sight of the unpopular school chief checking into Lorton. And he might still be sitting over there, leading a jail strike for better conditions for D.C. prisoners.
At least their roof doesn’t leak.
Williams didn’t aim his defiance only at outsiders trying to restrict the free hand he thought he had been given to run the school system when Becton hired him more than a year ago. On occasion, he sought to deceive and defy his boss and fellow general.
In a futile effort to get the schools open on time last September, Becton assigned his trusted aide, Bill Tidball, to monitor Williams’ ambitious roof repair program. Tidball contacted school principals to check on the progress of repairs and discovered, contrary to Williams’ assurances, that no work was under way. Williams solved that problem quickly: He and his staff withheld all information about the repair program from Tidball, just as they later did from the control board’s auditors.
Tidball went to Becton with his complaints about Williams, but Becton inexplicably sided with Williams, and Tidball immediately resigned and left quietly.
“Tidball said Williams had to go, but Becton stood by Williams,” said a former school administration official. “I guess one general just couldn’t discipline another.”
In one of his few comments to the Cotton & Co. auditors, Williams said he had accepted his current job only after being assured by Becton that he would operate under “emergency conditions” that would exempt him from existing procurement rules and regulations. Williams apparently interpreted “emergency conditions” as license to set his own rules.
He succeeded admirably, according to the audit’s findings.
“Although we found no direct evidence of fraud within the limited scope of our audit, in our opinion, the combination of 1.) not following any documented procurement policies or procedures, 2.) operating in an emergency mode with compressed timeframes, and 3.) not maintaining accurate and complete documentation of procurement decisions and actions created conditions conducive to fraud, waste, and abuse,” the audit report concluded. “These conditions are conducive to collusive bidding and create opportunities for bribes, kickbacks, and illegal gratuities.”
But Cotton & Co. should have known better than to suggest such malfeasance. After all, why would Williams need to go on the take when he legally pulls down $120,000 in annual salary, has pocketed a $30,000 signing bonus, and may receive a $36,000 performance bonus?
To cover their rears, Brimmer & Co. referred the audit to the D.C. inspector general for further investigation, even though the control board had not yet confirmed a new IG. Confirmation came two days later, when the board unanimously approved the selection of respected D.C. lawyer E. Barrett Prettyman to straighten out the Metropolitan Police Department and whatever else he can find time for in the six months to one year he has pledged to serve, without pay.
Brimmer assured reporters that the school audit would be at the top of Prettyman’s growing list when he takes over Thursday, Jan. 15.
Despite all the evidence of incompetence, Brimmer was mum on Becton’s job security. Although Becton had conveyed to Brimmer his reasons for defying the audit, Brimmer would not say what they were. “I have no comment on Gen. Becton’s response and performance at this time,” he sidestepped.
LL can’t wait to hear Becton try to explain this away on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress will soon return from their long year-end break eager to sink their teeth into the headline-grabbing red meat that the latest debacle in the D.C. school system offers.
While Brimmer would not critique Becton’s performance this week, he pointed out that the school chief has the power to fire Williams. With his hefty annual salary, Williams presents the perfect fall guy for Becton, who will have to oust his deputy, and soon, if he wants to regain credibility with his bosses at the control board.
The control board stepped up the pressure on Becton this week by launching an investigation into $70,000 in signing bonuses the school chief had approved for Williams, chief academic officer Arlene Ackerman, and her deputy. The school system paid an additional $41,713 to cover the taxes on these bonuses. Becton makes just $125,000 yearly because he neglected to negotiate his own bonus.
These salaries, the highest ever paid by the D.C. school system, have sparked a public furor over Becton’s brief tenure as the current equivalent of school superintendent. He may be following Williams over the side of the ship, especially if the control board needs someone to toss to hostile congressional Republicans.
Becton’s position has become even more precarious with the decision of control board member Joyce Ladner, his chief protector, to step down when her current term expires in June. Ladner had been assigned to oversee D.C. school reforms, but she was absent Monday, when Brimmer released the audit findings.
“She’s never around,” says a former school administration official. “And when she is around, she doesn’t listen to what you say.”
If Becton goes, Ackerman will be next in line to take over, despite the current controversy over her $110,000 annual salary, her $15,000 signing bonus, the nearly $10,000 in taxes paid by the school system to enhance her salary, the $12,000 in housing allowance the school system is currently paying on her posh Lansburgh apartment, and the four round-trip tickets D.C. taxpayers are buying so she can visit family and friends in Seattle. And LL won’t even mention the $30,000 performance bonus she may receive.
Ackerman would come to Becton’s job with more baggage than Leona Helmsley.
Despite the barrage of bad news hitting the Becton administration at the start of the new year, Brimmer insists D.C. residents needn’t worry, because the control board remains in charge.
“We’re still on the job and working hard,” he proclaimed at Monday’s news conference. And, referring to the control board’s supreme power over D.C. government, he added, “We’re the only ones who can act right now.”
D.C. residents are apparently supposed to find some comfort in that.
SCHOOL BOARD POTPOURRI
Last week, the D.C. Court of Appeals handed the city’s elected school board a stunning victory when it abolished its rival and nemesis, the nine-member appointed school trustees board. The ruling gave the elected school board an opportunity to seize the spotlight and reclaim its lost prominence. Instead, the badly fractured 11-member board found itself once again stymied by internal politics.
Ward 1 member Wilma Harvey, who was heading the ineffective body during the year its powers were taken away by the control board, returned to the president’s chair, edging out Ward 8 member Linda Moody. Harvey sealed her one-vote victory when Ward 4 member Sandra Butler-Truesdale switched at the last minute, reneging on a pledge to back Moody.
Before winning election to the board, Moody was a member of Parents United, a group currently out of favor with many city residents and Harvey backers.
Meanwhile, outgoing school board president Don Reeves, who spent much of last year publicly feuding with the appointed school board, is trying to mount a campaign for one of two at-large D.C. Council seats up for grabs this year. Before he starts leafleting, though, Reeves has to convince the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which oversees enforcement of the federal Hatch Act, that school board members should no longer be barred from partisan council elections now that their powers have been diminished.
Last week’s appeals court ruling that the control board had acted illegally in appointing an emergency board of trustees to supplant the elected school board may complicate Reeves’ quest to throw off the Hatch Act yoke.
Even if he gets the green light for a council run, Reeves must still convince a skeptical public that ranks school board members lower than high-school dropouts. CP
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