There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Melvin Doxie’s uniform—starched white shirt, dark-blue suit, matching suspenders, and striped tie—and his consistently measured responses clearly tag him as a lawyer-cum-D.C. bureaucrat. But today, the newly appointed executive director of the city’s Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) forgets himself. After weeks of sitting still while critics buried him in public meetings and the press, he’s got a few things on his mind. Abandoning his usually cool veneer to spar in this first public interview since his mayoral nomination in February, Doxie serves up heavy doses of righteous indignation; two more spoonfuls and he’ll reach highly pissed off. He doesn’t like having his ethical inclinations bandied about; he is furious that there are doubts about his ability to enforce campaign finance laws; and he is tired of fighting to keep his job.
“The council, civic activists, and press say they want a stable office,” says Doxie. “But maybe they don’t want that. Maybe they want an unstable office because it provides grist for the mill. They say, “Let’s keep postponing confirming this guy in hopes something will come up to show the man is dishonest or not capable of performing in the office.’ ”
Doxie didn’t start out so angry. He left the law firm of Leftwich & Douglass to accept a high-profile position as head of the agency charged with enforcing city campaign and conflict-of-interest laws. He expected to be a player in the affairs of the District and a savior of the beleaguered OCF. But he spends most days as a political dartboard.
Marion Barry appointed Doxie to the four-year term to head OCF, but before the D.C. Council approved his nomination, it took away the mayor’s authority to select the OCF director and gave it to the D.C. Board of Elections, effectively voiding Doxie’s appointment by Barry. Under the new law, which took effect June 1, the elections board was free to choose anyone for the newly established six-year position. The elections board promptly decided to go with Doxie anyway.
Dorothy Brizill, the District’s most vocal ethics watchdog, argued that the board should have conducted a national search before settling on the mayor’s appointee. Brizill and others question whether Doxie’s 27-year history with Barry might render him weak-kneed when it comes to investigating the city’s chief executive. (Barry’s election committee and the Washington Business Political Action Committee (PAC), which supported the mayor, are currently being investigated for violating city campaign finance laws): “There are clear indications he’s the wrong man for the job,” says Brizill. The reviews inside the agency itself are even more pointed. OCF staffers privately confide to councilmembers that the 52-year-old lawyer is a “tyrant.” They have been steadily pressuring the council not to approve Doxie, a decision that must be made within 180 days of his June 1 appointment. Some lawmakers want to hold another confirmation hearing before that deadline, a prospect Doxie calls ridiculous.
Sitting at the conference table in his fourth-floor office in the Frank Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U Streets NW, Doxie says his character has been maligned and misrepresented. Assembled, in preparation for an interview, are stacks of papers—listings of hearings scheduled since he landed in the director’s seat; listings of outstanding investigations held over from the previous acting director—copies of publications like the Drucker Foundation Self-Assessment Tool for Nonprofit Organizations; and a cheat sheet of points he wants to make. He will not go quietly.
Doxie’s status as a game piece in the fight between the mayor and council—along with attacks from both inside and out—may be crippling his effectiveness. He is the man in the middle and he doesn’t like it one bit.
For an office conceived in 1974 as the ethical conscience of District politics, the OCF itself has had a number of ironic lapses in judgment. There are legitimate reasons for concern about the neutrality and ethics of OCF leadership—few OCF directors have been untarnished. Victor Sterling—Doxie’s predecessor—served in his position as acting director well past the 180 days permitted by law, raising questions about the legality of his rulings. Sterling was in the uncomfortable position of overseeing the investigation of the pro-Barry election committee while the mayor decided whether to appoint him the permanent full-time director. Prior to Sterling, Robert Lane seemed like the perfect fit for the job—a lawyer and national president of Concerned Black Men. But a year after his appointment, Lane was picked up for buying crack on a city street. Marianne Niles, who served in the previous Barry administration, was held over several months by Sharon Pratt Kelly. While awaiting Kelly’s decision about her fate, Niles issued her own batch of questionable rulings involving her boss.
Current critics of the office have built a case that Barry owns the new OCF director by zeroing in on Doxie’s past employer:Leftwich & Douglass, a law firm that controls a sizable portion of District government business. Not surprisingly, the firm forked over nearly $18,000 to Barry’s campaign committee in the last election; Doxie made a contribution himself.
“Anybody who’s been around the District long enough knows that Willie Leftwich has been at the trough of the D.C. government by getting one contract after another. And not performing very well on most of them,” says Brizill. “Leftwich has this long history with Barry, and he’s defending Cora [in the federal investigation into possible laundering of campaign funds].” Brizill adds that Norma Leftwich, wife of Willie Leftwich, is on the Board of Elections, which Brizill believes is another significant conflict.
“He doesn’t have the ethical fiber,” Brizill says of Doxie. She and Doxie tangled just after his nomination when she fought to have the cases involving Barry and the PAC reopened.
Brizill characterizes the history between Doxie and Barry as extensive and not especially edifying. Doxie worked for Barry during his previous turn as mayor and even earlier when the chief executive was chief rabble-rouser and founder of Pride, Inc. (Barry’s former wife, Mary Treadwell, went to jail for financial shenanigans at the nonprofit organization, which for a while received federal funds. Pride is now defunct.)
“I don’t see any redeeming characteristics,” continues Brizill. “There are loads of people around this town who are experts in campaign finances. The person at OCF needs to be neutral. He’s the wrong person in the position.”
Doxie doesn’t apologize for his relationship with the mayor, but refutes any inferences that he’s in Barry’s pocket. He points out that he never pursued the OCF position in the first place. Doxie referred candidates, he says, but then received word that the mayor “wants you.” He suggests his past dealings with Barry make him the right man for the job, citing a spat the two had while they were both at Pride between 1968 and 1969 as an indication of his independence.
“Marion knows me from that day and knows that I resigned because we did not see eye-to-eye on the philosophy on how to run the organization,” says the salt-and-pepper-haired Doxie, who habitually folds and refolds his hands as if readying for prayer.
“He knows I have integrity,” Doxie continues. “And he knows that I will disagree, and that I will walk away, if necessary.”
Doxie keeps a red wooden apple on his bookshelf: A reminder, he says, “not to yield to temptation” and to remain on the “right side.” But the people who work for him say that Doxie lacks the judgment and the mien to figure out what the right side is. The staff is less interested in their new boss’s relationship with the mayor than his relationship with them. Descriptions of Doxie’s management style ranges from “dictatorial” to “tyrannical,” depending on which staffers you speak to.
Irate OCF staffers have employed unprecedented measures to undercut Doxie. They sent signed memorandums to councilmembers outlining egregious actions he has taken; they drafted briefing notes to persons they thought might be inclined to lobby against his appointment; and, more recently, they penned an unflattering poem and floated it to the media.
In interviews, the staff complains bitterly about Doxie’s personnel practices; they say he moves staffers around without any consideration of employment rules or the volume of work that must be performed in the office. “We are really an oppressed people over here,” says one staffer, who like others interviewed for this story spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s like having someone’s foot constantly on your neck.”
Staffers say they were ready to go to blows with their new director because of the way he spoke to them, ordering them to sit down as if they were children.
“The office doesn’t run smoothly; my job is to make it run smoothly,” Doxie says flatly. He reaches for his lawyerly voice as he ticks off examples of OCF’s nonperformance: No field audits were conducted in 1994, despite it being an election year, and during fiscal 1994 the office failed to conduct 975 compliance hearings it committed to. OCF never held 40 ethics seminars it promised, and never produced the three statistical reports it pledged to submit. Doxie isn’t the only one criticizing past performance at OCF. Earlier this year, D.C. Auditor Russell Smith reported that the OCF office failed to complete 65 percent of all investigations conducted in 1994 and failed to file annual reports as required by law.
Doxie says there hasn’t been an annual or statistical report out of the office in years. He says the secretary in the office is “unfamiliar” with Windows software, so the office can’t produce routine reports. The agency’s software is a mess, despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending over the last five years. As an example, Doxie says that if someone wanted to see how much John Brown gave to political candidates in the 1994 election, the agency’s software is unable to cross-check all reports for Brown’s name.
“Someone would have to do that manually, by eyeballing it,” he says, dramatically shuffling through sheaves of paper to demonstrate the process. He says the practices are unacceptably arcane for an agency charged with reviewing thousands of forms each year.
Leaning back confidently in his chair, Doxie says he can fix what others broke because he is eminently more qualified than past directors. He cites two stints as special assistant to Constance Newman—first when she was at the Consumer Products Commission and later at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). (Newman recently was appointed to the five-member financial control board overseeing the city’s fiscal recovery.) Doxie also served as the first executive director of the Public Service Commission and for a few years ran his own Wise potato chips distributorship in New York.
Doxie admits he is a taskmaster. He asks tough questions and forces staffers to answer them. Doxie explains that he has no patience for “B.S. None of this stuff talking to me about “it seems to me this’ or “it appears to me that’ and talking for 15 minutes rambling around the subject.”
Even though the staff believes Doxie is wrongheaded, they do give him credit for decisiveness.
“He has just come in here and has done a clean sweep of things,” says an OCF staffer. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
A combination of ethics, cries about flawed management, and a little old- fashioned politics appear to have prompted Harold Brazil, head of the council’s Committee on Government Operations, to call for a second confirmation hearing. Brazil’s criticism is a bad omen for Doxie.
“The turmoil he’s created in that office has not made me feel confident,” says Brazil. “Frankly, I’m a little underwhelmed by his performance.”
Some District government insiders have suggested that the Doxie debate is a diversion designed to obscure Brazil’s failure to advance real campaign finance reform.
“That’s inaccurate and unfair,” Brazil retorts. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the council to take a critical look at the office under his leadership.”
Barry disagrees. Last week he vetoed the temporary law that would have effectively disapproved Doxie if the council failed to act. “This is not about Mel Doxie,” says Bernard Demczuk, head of the mayor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. “It’s anyone who would be in that position….He just thinks it’s unfair to the [elections] board. It’s unfair to the person and it’s unfair to the council.”
Doxie finds no comfort in the trinkets and Afrocentric art that surround him as he folds and refolds his prayerful hands. When the possibility of a second confirmation hearing is raised, he bristles and spits out his words; his anger becomes harder to contain.
“I don’t know what they expect to find,” he says. “There isn’t anything new. It seems to be highly unusual to put someone in a position to say we are going to hold off confirming you until you make a decision on things we’re concerned about. If you decide a certain way we’ll confirm you and if you decide differently, we won’t.”
“That is unfair or gratuitous on their part,” continues Doxie, whose sudden steely gaze reveals a bit of the persona OCF staffers may have encountered. “The procedure should be “put him in.’ There are procedures [in the law] for removal.
“If he messes up, it will be the talk of the town,” an agitated Doxie says. “We’re operating in a goldfish bowl, so there is no opportunity for the office or the director to try crassly to cover up or gloss over something someone has done. The board can remove me; the council can bring pressure. But what you have [now] is demoralizing the staff because the staff still doesn’t know if it has leadership or not.”
Regaining his composure, Doxie says that whatever happens, he isn’t worried about his future. He says finding someplace else to hang his shingle won’t be hard: “I have been fortunate in my adult life to work in jobs that I’ve wanted and jobs I’ve been happy at. I’m dedicated and loyal to the mission of this particular office in terms of what it can do and what it can be in the life of the city.
“Given that the clock isn’t ticking, and I have more time, I have more authority to make the positive changes in the office I intended,” he says. “I have reconciled myself to the fact that there will be a second confirmation hearing. I don’t want the perception to be that somehow the board slipped Mel Doxie in.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.