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Newly named D.C. Inspector General (IG) Angela Avant said during her Dec. 1 confirmation hearing that she would “persecute” as well as prosecute those guilty of waste, fraud, and abuse in D.C. government. In a government where wrongdoers fear punishment less than bike messengers fear cops, this pledge of a double whammy—prosecution and persecution—should rumble like an earthquake through the city work force.
We jumped on the Avant bandwagon when we heard her vow: “I have no reservation to persecute individuals” who deserve it. Persecution may be just the enforcement weapon that’s been missing from the D.C. government’s arsenal during the first two decades of home rule.
Now, LL knows that some witnessing Avant’s performance last week will swear that the measured, mild-mannered IG simply misspoke, and meant to say “prosecution.” But she uttered the magic word “persecution” at least twice, and that was enough to convince LL it was no accident.
Just imagine it. Instead of relying on cumbersome trials, District residents will be invited to heave rotten fruit at department heads who abuse the perks of office, or ostracize mayoral cronies who benefit from sweetheart real estate deals, or run bribe-taking public-housing employees out of town. (These persecutions will certainly be easier and cheaper than prosecutions; Avant hasn’t even punched in yet and she’s already saving money.)
But members of the D.C. financial control board, which confirmed Avant with reservations last week, seemed unconvinced that she is “tough enough”—as board member Joyce Ladner put it—to police the government of the ever-wily Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.
Control board member Ed Singletary asked Avant, “Do you see yourself as a ‘junkyard dog’?”—a term you’d think an inspector general would find complimentary. In response, Avant could have reassured the jittery control board by breaking into the old Jim Croce song:
Yes, I’m bad, bad Angela Avant,
Baddest IG on the whole damn planet,
Badder than ol’ King Kong,
Meaner than a junkyard dog.
Instead, Avant seemed insulted by the question. “I personally don’t like that term. [pause] I can’t even say that word,” she replied, before adding, “I expect to perform as a professional. I have no problem making the tough decisions.”
And when asked what she anticipated would be the most difficult part of her new job, Avant replied, “One word I haven’t used is ‘difficult.’” To which board member Constance Newman quickly retorted: “It’s going to be difficult: Let’s not kid ourselves.”
If Avant still had any doubts that her new job will be tough, they surely vanished after board Chairman Andrew Brimmer summoned Anthony Williams, the city’s new chief financial officer (CFO), from the audience to discuss his latest clash with Mayor Barry. Williams and Avant are supposed to tag-team the D.C. government, keeping Barry et al. in line.
Newcomer Williams, on the job only five weeks, had sought the transfer of Harry Black, an aide to City Administrator Michael Rogers, into his office. Williams hoped to gain an experienced analyst familiar with the D.C. government’s inner workings (and not-workings). But Barry and Rogers apparently thought Black might be too familiar with the city bureaucracy: Last week, Barry and Rogers demanded and obtained Black’s resignation upon learning that he planned to request the transfer to Williams’ staff.
“I’ve been told that the mayor, as chief executive, must approve those persons I will hire,” Williams told the board last week, “and that’s not my belief.”
That’s also not the board’s belief. Brimmer and his colleagues contend that when Congress created the financial control board earlier this year, it also created the positions of chief financial officer and inspector general to operate independently of the mayor.
After Williams disclosed this latest run-in with the mayor, Brimmer turned to D.C. personnel director Larry King and asked him to explain the spat from the mayor’s end. King (not to be confused with the Department of Public Works director of the same name) apparently had come to watch Avant’s confirmation hearing. But the personnel director had already guessed from Brimmer’s questioning of Williams that he was next up on the hot seat, and he successfully dodged the issue, saying the mayor and Williams were still working out their “relationship.”
King did pledge to the board that Avant and the mayor would not clash over her staff hiring because “the inspector general has a different kind of independence.” In other words, Hizzoner acknowledges the independ-
ence of the cautious Avant but not that of the formidable Williams.
Barry contends that board members are hugely mistaken about the CFO’s role. According to Barry, Williams doesn’t possess absolute authority over D.C. spending and absolute independence from the mayor, as the CFO and the board claim. Two hours before Williams’ unexpected appearance before the board Dec. 1, Hizzoner escalated his public relations war against the CFO. Barry phoned WAMU (88.5 FM)’s D.C. Politics Hour to blame Williams for delays in payments to nonprofits that provide services to city residents.
Barry boasted that if he were allowed to decide which vendors to pay, the nonprofits would have cashed their checks already. Hizzoner conveniently ignored the fact that the delay in payments existed long before Williams arrived.
Fans of the control board should be both encouraged and discouraged by last week’s meeting. On the one hand, board members, who have been on the job just five months, demonstrated an extraordinary savvy about the Barry administration. On the other hand, that savvy still wasn’t enough to outmaneuver Barry, still the city’s pre-eminent political strategist. Hizzoner managed to force the board to accept his choice for the IG job. By waiting six months to pick a nominee, Barry pushed the board into a narrow corner. Members could reject his choice and take the political heat the mayor would turn on them for failing to fill the post. Or they could swallow their hesitations and approve Avant—an accountant and auditor with no experience in white-collar criminal investigation—and hope she learns quickly on the job.
The board chose the latter course, as Barry calculated it would.
FIRST LADY’S LUNCH
If any of the mayor’s aides wandered into Georgia Brown’s at lunchtime last Thursday, Nov. 30, they probably thought they had entered some alternate universe gone terribly awry. There was Cora Masters Lady MacBarry, dining on chicken livers and onions. And there, right across the table from her, was LL.
The aides’ shock might have even surpassed that of D.C.’s first lady when LL extended her a lunch invitation. Lady MacBarry was so surprised by LL’s offer to dine that she said she had to come—just to see what it was all about. LL must say that we were still a bit apprehensive that we would get stood up: Lady MacBarry freely admits she doesn’t relish the social aspects of being first lady, and her distaste for the media—or at least certain journalists—is known far and wide.
But the first lady arrived at noon, right on time. She apparently keeps a tighter schedule than Hizzoner.
Needless to say, most of the conversation was off the record, and therefore, unexpectedly frank. (If it had been on the record, it would have been the quietest two-hour lunch in the history of political dining.) But she later agreed to allow a few of the blander morsels for public consumption.
The first lady says she is amused—or at least not upset—by the moniker Lady MacBarry. “I don’t mind. I knew you were going to call me something, and it could have been a lot worse.”
But she hasn’t found much else to be amused about lately. “This has been the most difficult period of my life,” she says, referring to her husband’s prostate cancer, diagnosed by his doctors Oct. 13. Thanksgiving was particularly stressful, she relates, because Mayor Barry was scheduled to have exploratory surgery the day before the holiday, and decided only at the last minute to forgo the operation.
She says she thinks her husband has decided on a course of treatment for his disease, but she isn’t telling what it is. He will disclose his plans soon, she says. Lady MacBarry claims that her husband’s surprise Nov. 15 news conference, in which he disclosed his illness and urged men, especially black men, to get tested for prostate cancer, already has saved “thousands of lives” through early detection.
The first lady is taking a one-year sabbatical from her teaching job at the University of the District of Columbia, and she says she relishes the peace and solitude of staying home. Lady MacBarry is spending her days establishing a charitable foundation for boxer Riddick Bowe.
Despite her formidable reputation, the first lady claims to be amazed at how much power others believe she wields as the wife of the city’s most powerful politician. (But Lady MacBarry didn’t seem too surprised when D.C. superlobbyist Fred Cooke stopped by the table to say that he would be calling her soon on a crucial matter, though he wouldn’t say what it was with LL in earshot.)
Lady MacBarry also denies that she was influential in pushing her husband back into politics after his drug conviction and prison term. According to the first lady, her first clue that Barry would restart his political career in Ward 8 came in April 1992, when he was released from prison in Pennsylvania. A caravan of buses filled with Barry loyalists came to escort him home, and Hizzoner hopped aboard the Ward 8 bus. After his return, Lady MacBarry says, she and Hizzoner would go out for the evening, and then “we would end up just driving around the city before we went home, and we always ended up in Ward 8.”
Lady MacBarry is a longtime Ward 7 resident, and she says it has taken her a long time to fall in love with her husband’s new ward. She changed her mind about the ward when she laid eyes on the house the Barrys eventually purchased at 161 Raleigh St. SE. Lady MacBarry says that when she stood on the front porch and took in the breathtaking vista of the city, she finally realized that 8 is great. She decided to buy the house before she set foot inside it.
Speaking of Ward 8, the first lady defends her alliance with Eydie Whittington, her husband’s successor as the ward’s councilmember. Whittington, whose campaign was chaired by Lady MacBarry, defeated longtime Barry ally Sandy Allen by one vote in the special May 2 election to pick the councilmember who would finish Barry’s term. The first lady says she backed Whittington because it was time for “a new face and new energy” in Ward 8 politics.
“I think Eydie is doing a wonderful job,” and will have no trouble winning a full council term in the 1996 election, Lady MacBarry says. She also predicts that the effort to recall Whittington will fail, despite the 4,000-plus signatures turned in this week by recall organizers seeking the councilmember’s ouster.
As for Whittington’s refusal to talk to LL, Lady MacBarry comments, “I don’t blame her. Everybody’s afraid to talk to you.”
Everybody, that is, except Lady MacBarry.
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