There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
When Angela Avant was hired as D.C.’s new, improved inspector general a year ago, she bristled at suggestions by members of the D.C. financial control board that she go after corruption in the District government like “a junkyard dog.” The mild-mannered Avant said she found that characterization “offensive.”
True to her word, Avant has behaved like a toothless Chihuahua in her 11 months in office. But her masters on the control board are pulling on her leash, so Avant now feels pressured to produce headline-making reports on corruption and waste in the District government. Her most recent offering—a report on the city’s recycling contract—is very skimpy indeed and illustrates her investigative weaknesses more clearly than the governmental misfeasance she is supposed to ferret out.
While city officials and employees fed her tips alleging rampant cronyism and corruption at D.C. General Hospital, fraudulent contracts at the Department of Health and Human Services, and chronic misdoings at various other city agencies, Avant chose to set her sights on Eagle Maintenance and Services Inc., the politically well-connected D.C. firm that seems to have an unbreakable grip on the city’s recycling business—no matter how poorly the company performs. Eagle owner Richard Tynes is a close political ally of Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. and is friendly with Department of Public Works (DPW) officials.
It has taken Avant two tries to get the Eagle story straight.
Last spring, Avant launched her first audit of Eagle’s original recycling contract, which was canceled in May 1995, at the behest of D.C. Corporation Counsel Charles Ruff.
The audit, which was released on Aug. 16, challenged $4.3 million of the nearly $9.9 million Eagle received from or billed the city on the recycling contract it held from February 1993 to May 1995. The IG’s audit report stated that Eagle either failed to document these expenditures or billed the city for expenses not covered by the contract. In some instances, DPW paid more than Eagle billed, the audit noted.
Avant’s four-month project documented what the city already knew about Eagle. Many of the so-called findings in Avant’s reports had surfaced earlier in legal battles over the troubled recycling program and the contract award to Eagle. Environmentalists and the media swarmed over Eagle when the city’s recycling program went bust in April of last year.
This past September, the D.C. Contract Appeals Board ordered the IG to take a closer look at the Eagle contract, and Avant’s office responded by challenging nearly $2 million in additional costs billed to D.C. taxpayers. That brought the total of disputed payments to $6.23 million, or two-thirds of the total contract cost.
The biggest dispute concerns Eagle’s claim that the city still owes it $5.5 million for construction of a recycling processing center at its North Capitol Street plant. Avant’s audit disputed that claim, stating that the costs Eagle incurred in building the center were not covered by the contract.
But even though those are some big numbers, they were already in dispute. The audit barely touched the more juicy morsels on the margins of the contract. For instance, the IG’s auditors challenged $19,854 Eagle Maintenance billed the city for “entertainment,” and $47,651 for “contributions.”
Did the firm stick D.C. taxpayers with the tab for political donations and for wining and dining DPW officials?
The answer is, the IG doesn’t know because the auditors never asked, according to Assistant IG Ronald Stith. But now the IG is taking a third look at the contract, as well as a look at the current recycling contract the company holds.
“We are now looking at those kinds of details,” says Stith.
DPW abruptly canceled the original contract in May of 1995 amid legal challenges and congressional inquiries into the unusual circumstances surrounding the award. (Evaluations of Eagle’s bid were mysteriously altered to ensure that it received the top ranking over competing bids.) DPW had also overspent its recycling budget and wanted to lower its costs.
Following cancellation, DPW solicited a new round of bids, and—surprise! surprise!—Eagle won again last year.
If Avant is counting on the Eagle audit to show the increasingly impatient financial control board that she’s doing her job, she has taken aim at the wrong prey. Even local environmentalists, who prize the recycling program as dearly as the C&O Canal, are not praising Avant’s Eagle eye for impropriety.
“Why didn’t she look at what DPW did? They’re the ones who screwed this up,” says local Sierra Club official Jim Dougherty. “Her priorities appear to be going after the private sector guys instead of the real fraud taking place inside of the government.”
So while Avant has taken aim at a major contractor, she has yet to bust anyone at the top levels of government and send a signal that she means business. The control board, which has the power to fire Avant, has been warning her since last spring to step up the pace of her investigations. But she has seemed incapable, or unwilling, to heed the warning until recently.
Avant has been so laid back that even control board staffers snicker in open disbelief at the claim that the IG’s office, under her command, has issued 19 audits and reports to date. That was news even to some on Avant’s own staff. The majority of these “reports” are technical reviews of the city’s financial management, procurement, and information-collection systems rather than investigations of wrongdoing and corruption. One, for instance, warned that the D.C. motor vehicle information system was badly outdated and could fail at any moment—a report that any of the city’s 380,000 registered drivers could have written, at far less expense.
“They’re not even touching the low-hanging fruit that’s out there in every city agency,” observes one IG watcher. “You can’t judge her, because there’s no record to make a judgment on.”
On the hunch that she needs a bigger trophy than Eagle to save her job, the IG has canceled all leave for her 38 staffers until after New Year’s. She hopes to crank out enough audits and investigative reports over the next six weeks to maintain her post when her first year ends Jan. 16.
To her beleaguered staff, Avant may become the new Grinch who stole Christmas.
Stith says the IG’s office currently has “close to 40 to 50” investigations and “20 to 25 audits” under way, and will issue another 10 reports by Christmas.
While the IG’s productivity claims hardly resonate at the control board, they at least ring true to Barry. Two weeks ago, Hizzoner said he “absolutely” backs Avant. “She’s doing a great job,” he insisted.
When Barry picked Avant for the job last year, with the approval of the control board, he said he wanted an IG who would help him bring efficiency to the government and not spend all her time looking for corruption. Avant has certainly lived up to the mayor’s expectations.
She has also shown a willingness to follow the mayor’s lead. When Barry was feuding with D.C. lottery director Frederick King last summer, Avant even investigated the mayor’s claim that King had falsified his resume to get the lottery job. (King didn’t, the IG concluded.) Now, with her job in jeopardy, Avant is back at the lottery board investigating charges more serious than resume puffery.
Avant may have good relations with the mayor, but she is learning that Barry’s support doesn’t carry the clout it once did, and won’t be enough to save her from the control board.
BARRY’S COPS AN ISSUE
The ever-diminishing Mayor Barry appears to have decided upon a three-pronged strategy for winning re-election in two years: make the streets safe, pick up the trash, and brace for acts of God, like last January’s record blizzard. According to one source close to the mayor, Barry is convinced that mayors get thrown out of office for failing to deal effectively with these three problems.
So Hizzoner intends to be prepared. In recent weeks, he has unveiled his snow-emergency plan for the coming winter and his “community empowerment policing” program to combat crime.
Hoping to regain the high ground on the crime issue, Barry is taking his public safety show on the road throughout the District in coming weeks. The dog-and-pony act serves two purposes for Hizzoner: gathering community support for the 1998 mayoral race, and warding off a control board-sponsored takeover of the police department, one of the last big chunks of city government Barry still controls completely.
The show had a shaky opening Nov. 26 at Hine Junior High School on Capitol Hill, where crime has been a hot-button issue for the past several years. It’s also the area of the city where community policing has become more than a slogan since local officials began mouthing it more than six years ago. In some Capitol Hill neighborhoods, residents have been working closely with the cops on the beat for some time.
So it was not an ideal situation for Barry to come harangue the masses about “transforming our thinking as to how we begin to tackle crime in D.C.” Most of the 75 audience members could recite the latest crime statistics for the neighborhoods and knew more police officers by name than Barry did. (The turnout would have been higher had the mayor’s office mailed the notices of the meeting a day or two earlier, instead of that day.)
And Barry didn’t help his cause by showing up an hour late for his meeting.
“The other point is, it seems to me you citizens have to become more outraged than you are,” he lectured, as he is wont to do. That was like throwing red meat to the Capitol Hill pack, which has led the fight to get more resources for the police department. They barked back with the outrage Barry was seeking.
“Now, don’t be rude,” Barry snapped.
“You’re rude by being late,” one man in the audience angrily responded.
Barry had some advice for those in the auditorium who felt he should give up his tight control over the police department: Get over it.
“I’m never going to do that,” he said. “I make no apologies about that. It’s the law that I get to appoint police officers, captains, and above.”
Turning to Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Larry Soulsby, who sat solemnly throughout the two-hour event and spoke only once, Barry revealed that, “Chief Soulsby and I have never had one disagreement” on promotions.
Hizzoner’s endorsement of Soulsby was about as welcome among the Capitol Hill crowd as a plan to convert Eastern Market into a shopping mall.
Instead of loosening his rein on the police department, Barry vowed to get more involved with its day-to-day operations. “You’re going to see me,” he warned. “I’m going to be riding in these patrol cars. I’ll be at these roll calls. Whether you like it or not, I’m going to take leadership. If you don’t like it, you can go…well, I’m going to take leadership.”
Soulsby’s performance did little to quell speculation among MPD insiders that Barry intends to replace him soon after President Clinton’s inauguration in January. But Barry’s problem is finding a replacement. Deputy Chief Bill Sarvis, who was being groomed as Soulsby’s potential successor, got knocked out of contention when he was cited for disorderly conduct last summer, and is now under investigation for buying hot property from an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
Everyone else in the department’s upper ranks whom Barry might elevate to chief has an even more blemished record.
While professing his support for Soulsby at last week’s meeting, Barry told the crowd that his next chief will be a commander with a record of reducing crime in the neighborhoods. That resume requirement seems to rule out most of the headquarters crowd scheming to get rid of Soulsby.
Barry views crime prevention as a way to deepen his grass-roots political network. Much to the annoyance of the crowd, Barry repeatedly asked Capitol Hill residents to name the squad car beats they live in so that he could “identify the gaps” and presumably pick his own people for the unorganized areas. His community-empowerment policing plan sets up a citizens committee for each of the city’s 138 beats.
But a majority of the crowd at Hine last week seemed to fear that once Barry gets involved, community-empowerment policing will become just another meaningless slogan.
The growing card of candidates vying to replace Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil in next spring’s special election may soon feature a renowned heavyweight. The Rev. George Stallings of the Catholic breakaway church, Imani Temple, has been telling members of his congregation that he will announce his candidacy from the pulpit this Sunday morning.
Stallings lives and works in Ward 6. His home is in Anacostia, and his church is next to Stanton Park on Capitol Hill.
High-profile D.C. ministers haven’t done too well at the ballot box lately. The Rev. Robert Hamilton, who led prayer vigils outside the federal courthouse during Barry’s 1990 drug trial and headed up the 1994 draft movement that landed Barry back in the mayor’s office, got clobbered when he ran for an at-large council seat this fall. And Barry didn’t lift a finger to help his loyal follower.
But the Rev. Robert Childs of Berean Baptist Church won a school board seat in November after pledging that he would not seek a higher office and was jumping into the political arena only to fix the schools. CP