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Some valuable lessons are emerging from the week-old battle over the fate of hapless D.C. Department of Human Services Director (DHS) Vernon Hawkins, the latest pawn in Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.’s relentless war against the financial control board.
First lesson: If Cora Masters Lady MacBarry wants you out, clean out your desk, because you will be gone by the end of the day. That’s what happened to Department of Employment Services Director Joe Yeldell last month. Yeldell claims he received his walking papers after he fell out of favor with the District’s first lady over, of all things, his handling of the mayor’s annual prayer breakfast.
But after control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer and company demanded on May 31 that Hawkins be fired immediately for gross mismanagement—or rather nonmanagement—of the city’s largest agency, Barry balked. He claimed his loyal ally had a right to “due process.” That was a thinly veiled attempt to keep Hawkins in place another 60 to 90 days before transferring him to a top job at the troubled Department of Corrections. Barry made no mention of Yeldell’s right to “due process” when he abruptly fired him.
Hawkins apparently still basks in the good graces of Lady MacBarry.
Never mind that the agency under his command is in a shambles. Never mind that in the past year the agency has compensated Barry cronies Roy Littlejohn and John Clyburn with handwritten checks to get around financial management controls. Never mind that patients are suffering, and dying, in city-run nursing homes because of lack of care, and that children in foster homes are being neglected and abused. Never mind that vendors providing medical care and food stamp deliveries were being asked to do so by Hawkins without the contracts required by law, according to control board Executive Director John Hill. Never mind that a department official did not submit contracts for review by the mayor’s office and then allegedly lied about his actions to the control board. Never mind that DHS has “ghost employees” on its payroll, and that it has been paying 300 employees to care for 28 patients at the D.C. Village nursing home, according to D.C. Superior Court testimony last week.
(LL could go on and on here, but you get the idea.)
On Wednesday, Barry caved in to Brimmer’s demand that he fire Hawkins, but he saved face by moving his pal to the Office of Corporation Counsel.
Hawkins’ abysmal record at DHS should have earned him a pink slip long ago, but Barry’s crony-driven management style makes no link between job performance and job security.
Hawkins’ main qualifications for the DHS post were that he had worked for the D.C. government for 30 years and that he organized the April 1994 bus caravan that escorted Barry from a Pennsylvania prison back to the District. Oh yes, and he has a good attendance record at Barry’s town meetings.
Hizzoner actually cited Hawkins’ tendency to show his face at town meetings in defending him during a May 24 appearance on WAMU’s D.C. Politics Hour.
The second lesson to be gleaned from this latest skirmish is that Barry is still ready and willing to put race on the table when his future or that of his cronies is at risk. LL was not at all surprised that Barry’s mouthpiece, the Rev. Willie Wilson, pulled out the race card in his Sunday sermon at Union Temple Baptist Church. Wilson portrayed the board’s attempt to remove Hawkins as racially motivated.
Nor were we surprised that Wilson used Anacostia’s well-attended annual “Unifest” celebration to declare “war” on the control board and “that foolish Negro at the top”—Brimmer—all in the name of preserving home rule, of course. Wilson was attempting to exploit concerns that a white, conservative Republican Congress wants to seize control of the District. (This is the same minister who mounted a racially charged campaign against a Chinese-owned carry-out in Anacostia 10 years ago, threatened to cut off the owner’s head, “and roll it down the street.” Now that’s a Christian soldier.)
Hawkins, a close friend of the fiery Wilson, was the coordinator of this year’s Unifest.
Had he devoted as much effort to running his agency as he did in recent weeks to organizing the festival, Hawkins might have eased the suffering of the thousands of patients who depend on DHS. (DHS oversees the city’s runaway Medicaid program. The agency spends $1.6 billion annually, or one-third of the city’s $5-billion budget.)
Last Monday the Washington Post cited the control board’s demand that Hawkins be fired in a front-page story on Wilson’s war against the board. The article gave the impression that the District was about to erupt into racial conflict over whether Hawkins had the right to continue running DHS into the ground. But support for Hawkins runs as shallow as Rock Creek in August.
David White, an Anacostia advisory neighborhood commissioner, met with Hawkins twice during the weeks leading up to Unifest to discuss ways of lessening the event’s impact on surrounding neighborhoods.
“He basically lied to me on every issue we discussed,” an indignant White said this week. “He made all these promises that were totally nonexistent.”
“To say that the control board is out to make him a scapegoat is nothing more than subterfuge to hide the fact that Barry dropped the ball in his appointment of Vernon Hawkins in the first place,” White continued. “I think, basically, Vernon is in over his head.”
When the conventional race card didn’t appear to be working, Barry took a more historical tack on Monday, comparing the control board to Nazi Germany for trying to remove Hawkins from the cabinet.
That may backfire as well.
“Has he lost his damn mind?” asked outraged Ward 8 activist Phil Pannell about the Nazi reference. “It’s inflammatory, it’s ridiculous, and he shouldn’t be saying it. There are some folks who are really angry about this. It doesn’t make any sense, and it’s got to stop.”
In other words, don’t look for throngs of Southeast residents to storm the control board’s headquarters demanding that Hawkins be restored to his $82,000-a-year job so that they can continue to receive poor service from DHS.
The third lesson, or observation, that LL draws from the Hawkins affair is that the D.C. Council has an instinctive reaction to Barry-related controversies: disappear. The controversies provide councilmembers high-publicity opportunities to stand up and show some leadership. They never seize them.
At-Large Democratic Councilmember Linda Cropp, chair of the council’s human services oversight committee, is especially blameworthy. She is keenly aware of DHS’s failures under Hawkins and could help put his ouster in context, but that would be out of character for a District councilmember. Most crawl into the bunker when the shooting starts and only come out once it’s clear who will win.
And this time the council’s aversion to leadership seems also to have infected D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has said nothing about the dispute.
But leadership is an elixir councilmembers have shown little stomach for. And LL fears we may end up watching a bunch of councilmembers puking on Pennsylvania Avenue if they try imbibing that tonic now, after such a long abstinence.
By demanding that Hawkins go and preparing to make additional personnel changes at DHS and other city agencies, the control board is settling into its chartered mission: installing a government in the District. Although D.C. has had home rule for more than 21 years, the government exists only as a provider of pay checks and contracts, not services.
Of course, D.C. government officials have little idea whether their agencies are working: Last year an official audit found that the city still had not developed accounting procedures to track delivery of services it paid for. (The audit also revealed that Barry had overridden financial management controls to write a DHS check to a firm owned by Littlejohn. The firm was fired a few months later for mismanagement of J.B. Johnson Nursing Home. The Barry administration had recently performed a similar favor for Clyburn’s firm, JMC Associates.)
Approving Hawkins’ successor is a critical component of the board’s government-building plan. That way, it can prevent Barry from moving his cronies from one department to another in a game of political musical chairs. The board has made it clear that it wants Hawkins vaulted not only from DHS but also the entire D.C. government. Hill warns that Hawkins will bring his management failures to whatever agency he’s transferred to.
Control board members are experienced in detecting cases of mismanagement cross-pollination. In early May, for example, the board went after DHS contracting officer J.W. Lanum, who was allegedly issuing contracts in violation of the agency’s normal procedures and then allegedly lied to a control board staffer to cover up his activities.
Lanum ran afoul of contracting regulations when he presided over procurement for the city’s housing agency. He resigned last summer after the agency’s court-appointed receiver threatened to fire him and was transferred to DHS. But control board officials say Lanum’s disregard for contracting procedures has continued during his tenure at DHS.
Hill recently conducted a hearing on Lanum’s status and is expected to make a recommendation to the board soon.
Installing a government in this city is going to be a painful process, and more heads will roll. But no one, from Wall Street to Capitol Hill, will be willing to invest a dime in the District until many of the usual suspects are rubbed out of District government.
Popular At-Large Independent Councilmember Bill Lightfoot has made it clear in recent weeks that he will step down at the end of this year to prepare for a possible run for mayor in 1998. Lightfoot’s move is further evidence that being a member of the council is seen as a hindrance rather than a stepping stone to higher office.
But Lightfoot didn’t win any votes when he barged into the Department of Motor Vehicles May 30 and cut in at the head of the line to get his driver’s license renewed.
“He walked in and butted in front of everyone,” said an outraged Steve Montrose. “Maybe if he had to stand in that line for an hour and a half, like I did, he would do something about getting more people back there ….”
“I know what the guy’s talking about,” Lightfoot admitted. He said he couldn’t wait because he had to attend a council hearing.
Ward 2 incumbent Jack Evans demonstrated the power of incumbency during last week’s caucus to choose delegates to this summer’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Evans rounded up three busloads of senior citizens, fed them breakfast, hustled them in through a side entrance to the D.C. Convention Center where they would not be solicited by other candidates, and secured election as a convention delegate.
Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas and his wife, Romaine, also rounded up enough supporters to win election by the caucus, which attracted some 1,100 D.C. Democrats. Thomas’ longtime rival, Bob Artisst, was elected a delegate, as was former council Chairman Arrington Dixon, in what may mark the beginning of a political comeback.
Other Democratic convention delegates elected were former Barry campaign treasurer Carrolena Key, teachers union president Barbara Bullock, and party activists Betty Smalls, Joan Thomas, Beverly Neal, Gwendolyn Hemphill, Norm Nixon, Paul Strauss, and Peter Schott.
But anti–control board activist Lawrence Guyot, who pledged to get the national party to endorse abolishing D.C.’s control board, lost out in the caucus voting. Local labor leaders Joslyn Williams, Ron Richardson, David Schlein, and Roscoe Ridley Jr. were also snubbed in the caucus.
Barry did not participate in last week’s caucus, and angry party members have lodged a move to deny him leadership of the convention delegation.
At-large council candidate John Capozzi was outside the convention center putting up his posters last Friday evening when he witnessed a purse snatching. Citizen Capozzi gave chase through Chinatown, and with the help of another Good Samaritan, Jeff Bowser, tackled and subdued the culprit.
But a call to 911 failed to bring a cop rushing to the crime scene. After nearly 20 agonizing minutes, Capozzi’s wife was able to flag down a passing police officer, who took the suspect off their hands.CP
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