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The District government may have wasted $1 million in taxpayer money in a failed effort to adjust a faulty promotion test in the fire department, according to a soon-to-be-released report by D.C. Auditor Russell Smith. The test—developed in 1990 and 1991—was designed to alleviate discriminatory employment practices in the fire department. The audit reportedly suggests that the test remained flawed even after the payment of massive fees to a court monitor, George Washington University (GW) law professor Stephen Saltzburg, and the team of experts who designed the promotion examination.
According to people familiar with the audit, Saltzburg received $300,000 to oversee the design and implementation of the examination, while another $600,000 was spent on the actual design of the exam. Despite the steep price tag, the fire department ultimately trashed one part of the examination and dumped half the questions in another section. The final third of the test was used in its entirety, according to sources familiar with the exam. The new examination also failed to allay fears about racial bias. Black firefighters suggested that some white firefighters had copies of the examination prior to the testing date, and have also complained that all 18 of the firefighters selected to administer and grade the exam were white.
D.C. Auditor Smith says the audit is in the “draft process” and that consequently he is “not at liberty to discuss the details.” Saltzburg responded to a draft of the auditor’s report with a letter to the city, but declined to provide a copy of that letter to Washington City Paper. “Parts of the audit are misleading and misinform people,” Saltzburg says, suggesting that he had duties far beyond overseeing the development of the test.
The controversy began in the late ’70s, when black firefighters filed a class action lawsuit that demanded changes in the way promotions were made, arguing that the promotion examination’s design and content favored white firefighters. After a protracted legal battle between the city, the predominantly white firefighters’ union, and the black firefighters, a new examination was developed in 1990. No one disputes that the test needed to be fixed, but the cost and efficacy of the adjustments are now being challenged in the audit.
The wrangle over the firefighters’ exam mirrors a broader concern in the District: Residents and elected officials are becoming increasingly impatient over the amount of money being paid to court-appointed monitors to repair snags in the District bureaucracy, and wondering aloud whether some of the cures haven’t exacerbated problems. In many cases, the monitors are collecting huge paychecks even though the quality of their work is in dispute. Some critics have charged that the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on court-appointed overseers for the District’s foster care program did not noticeably improve the faltering system—the program was placed under full receivership earlier this year, which cost the city additional money.
Reached at his office at GW National Law Center, Saltzburg says that his fees were high because his responsibilities went beyond simply overseeing the design and implementation of the test: “All the fees I received for a five-year period were for a host of different things.” As part of the settlement of the black firefighters’ lawsuit, the District government also agreed to pay $3.5 million in damages to those persons represented under the suit. U.S. District Court Judge Charles Richey appointed Saltzburg to oversee the distribution of the award in addition to supervising the development of a new test. Saltzburg says his responsibilities for monitoring the settlement were time-intensive.
“Had there not been repeated appeals [by the black firefighters and the city], my time would have been greatly reduced,” says Saltzburg, defending the amount of taxpayer money that went into his pocket.
Saltzburg says that his responsibility regarding the examination was limited to ensuring that “the product was produced on time.” The actual examination was designed by Carl Holmes, Lawrence O’Leary, and Richard Barrett, who were paid $500,000 for the 1990 test; they received another $100,000-plus for the 1991 exam, Saltzburg says.
Sources familiar with the report say an audit of the monitor’s fees and activities had been requested by the black firefighters and D.C. Councilmember William Lightfoot in 1992. They say the previous auditor, Otis Troupe, failed to investigate because of pressure from the union. Troupe could not be reached for comment, while Raymond Sneed, head of the city’s firefighters’ union, did not return repeated telephone calls.
But Lightfoot confirms that the audit was requested “a long time ago.” He has scheduled a hearing on the fire department and its equipment shortage for Nov. 8. “If the report is completed, we’ll discuss it at the hearing,” Lightfoot says.