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It was District cronyism at its best: In the early 1980s, Mayor Marion Barry tapped the Information Protection and Advocacy Center for Handicapped Individuals (IPACHI) to serve as the city’s federally mandated legal watchdog for indigent mentally and physically disabled residents. Vested with unique federal enforcement power, the group could have attacked the city for a myriad of abuses at its facilities for the mentally ill, mentally retarded, and elderly. It could have filed a barrage of federal lawsuits for D.C. public school kids who weren’t getting special-ed classes. And it could have given Barry grief over the treatment of prisoners with AIDS.

But IPACHI, headed for 20 years by longtime Barry pal Yetta Galiber, wasn’t the slightest bit inclined to turn on the District. Former employees allege that Galiber turned IPACHI into an Amway distributorship, enlisting mentally ill clients to make sales that swelled her bank account. According to records filed in a D.C. Superior Court suit, she authorized a convicted murderer to sign agency checks that disappeared into a morass of bad accounting. And shortly before Galiber’s 1990 retirement, federal auditors from the Center for Mental Health Services found that hundreds of thousands of dollars intended for programs for disabled clients had mysteriously disappeared. Yet according to IPACHI board minutes, Galiber managed to retire with a $500,000 pension plan, to which she never made a single contribution, and she moved to the Virgin Islands, where she lives today. Last summer, IPACHI closed its doors, leaving behind a slew of bad debts, unpaid taxes, a federal criminal probe, and thousands of disabled city residents without legal representation.

At the time, Barry promised to swiftly appoint a new, competent agency to fill the void left by IPACHI. But one year later, it looks as if the mayor is executing another end run. Quietly disregarding opposition from advocates for the disabled, last month Barry selected an old friend with no legal experience to take over where IPACHI left off.

The latest furor began in February, when Barry announced that he intended to grant special authority to the D.C. Mental Health Association to receive nearly $750,000 in federal funds earmarked for protection and advocacy work on behalf of the disabled. The association is a one-woman shop run by Anita Shelton, whose résumé includes a stint at the D.C. Office of Human Rights in the first Barry administration. According to the Washington Post, she was fired in 1983 after complaints that the office had accumulated a huge backlog of cases. At one time during her tenure, federal investigators threatened to cut off federal funds to the office because the case closure rate was so low. Shelton did not return calls for comment.

Sister Mary Ann Luby, outreach coordinator for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and a member of the D.C. Disability Law Coalition, was stunned to hear that the mayor had made Shelton’s designation official, because disability advocates have been trying to meet with officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to get Barry to change his mind. She describes the decision as “another example of the District giving money to people with no expertise. We never learn.”

The federal protection and advocacy statute is a little-known but powerful legal tool designed to help enforce federal laws barring discrimination against the mentally and physically disabled. Every state must have a designated protection and advocacy agency to receive federal money for programs like vocational rehabilitation. Once a governor (or, in the District’s case, the mayor) designates an agency, it is empowered to sue just about anyone on behalf of all people with disabilities—even without having a client—and the mayor can’t rescind the power without special authorization from the federal government.

Public interest groups covet the designation because it also empowers agency staff to conduct on-site investigations of public and private facilities such as nursing homes, mental hospitals, and group homes for the retarded, overriding state and local confidentiality laws. “It’s a powerful authority,” says Curtis Decker, executive director of the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems (NAPAS). “It’s a pity if it’s not used.”

Because the designation is such a big stick, the mayor has a tremendous incentive to appoint friendly associates, since one of the agency’s prime targets would likely be the District government itself. IPACHI, the former protection and advocacy group run by another Barry crony, had a long history of doing no legal work, according to several federal program reviews. IPACHI never filed a single class action suit, rarely exercised its investigative powers, and seemed to exist mostly to provide jobs for Galiber’s family and friends. (According to records in a lawsuit filed against IPACHI in D.C. Superior Court, federal officials once ordered IPACHI to repay money paid to Galiber’s son’s printing firm in violation of anti-nepotism laws.)

When the city was preparing to find a replacement for IPACHI, 18 local disability groups formed the D.C. Disability Law Coalition (DLC) to make sure that its successor was a serious player. The Department of Human Services solicited DLC’s help in reviewing applications for the new agency. The DLC highly recommended noteworthy groups like the Legal Counsel for the Elderly, which helped close down the District’s troubled nursing home, D.C. Village, and the D.C. School of Law, whose disability rights clinic is directed by Robert Bergdorf, the principal drafter of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The DLC ranked Shelton’s organization unqualified because of the group’s lack of legal expertise.

Unswayed by the DLC’s evaluations, Barry handpicked Shelton’s group, prompting officials from the U.S. Department of Human Services and other federal agencies to intervene. The feds demanded that the mayor comply with federal law requiring a public hearing on the designation. Barry relented, and disability advocates crowded the Martin Luther King Library April 29 to protest his decision.

Bob Moon, head of the court-appointed monitoring committee overseeing D.C.’s mental health system, told District officials that he opposed Shelton’s selection because she had on several occasions “voiced her skepticism about the effectiveness of legal advocacy and declared her unwillingness to file suit against the District.” He urged city officials to recommend that the mayor reconsider the designation: “With massive changes in the health and mental health care systems being contemplated in the midst of the city’s financial crisis and federal program cutbacks, a vigilant external advocate is needed more than ever,” Moon said.

But on April 3, several weeks before the hearing, Shelton and two of her associates, former school board member Barbara Lett Simmons and retired attorney Mary Gardiner Jones, incorporated a new entity called the Protection and Advocacy Service for All People With Disabilities; Shelton apparently had no doubts that she would receive the mayor’s blessing. The incorporation convinced advocates that the public hearing was merely designed to appease federal regulators rather than consider community input. And early last month, the mayor finalized the paperwork, making Shelton’s group the official agency for the District. Now, even the federal government has little power to undo the decision.

Jan May, acting director of Legal Counsel for the Elderly, says, “We have been a provider of legal services and involved in systemic reform for 20 years. Obviously, I’m disappointed. There are a significant number of people with disabilities in D.C. who are not getting the services to which they are entitled under federal and D.C. law. The real tragedy here are persons with disabilities.”

He suspects that the mayor’s appointment of Shelton’s group doesn’t hold much promise for advancing the legal rights of the disabled in the District, especially since Shelton is not a lawyer. (She has a master’s degree in social work and a history of civil rights activism and legislative advocacy.) “So much of that stuff does not get resolved beyond one person without using the legal system,” says May. “You can’t really be an effective [advocate] without serving a substantial number of clients and devoting a substantial part of your budget to systemic reform, and that results in filing a law suit.”

For instance, he says, a functioning protection and advocacy system should have prevented the kinds of abuses that occurred at D.C. Village or Forest Haven, the District’s former institution for the mentally retarded, where more than 30 people died from inadequate care. “One could not deal with this by providing people with some information and a referral,” says May. “You’ve got to have some people who are legally trained.”

Shelton’s most recent work involved a $75,000 grant to facilitate meetings between public and private mental health providers. Participants in the public/private partnership meetings were some of Shelton’s most vocal opponents at the April hearing.

“She’s completely incompetent,” says Michele May, program director for Calvary Women’s Shelter. May works with homeless mentally ill clients who would be represented by attorneys in the new protection and advocacy group. But based on her experience with the public/private partnership meetings, May says, “I’m not going to refer any one to [Shelton]. I’ve seen how she operates.”

While Shelton did not return calls for this story, NAPAS’ Decker says she plans to have the agency up and running by August 1. However, federal officials have not yet released any money to the group, and Shelton has been unable to hire any staff, according to Decker. She’s rented an office at 8th Street and Florida Avenue NW, but no one answers the phone there.

An exasperated May says that by choosing a group with no staff, no computers, and no history in legal advocacy, the mayor has ensured that some of the city’s most vulnerable residents will suffer. “There are clients who need services, and there are other agencies that could have picked this up and gotten the ball rolling by now.”—Stephanie Mencimer