We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
This morning, Examiner‘s Michael Neibauer broke off another scoop from the fishy fire truck story that he broke last spring. On the heels of a D.C. Council investigative report, he describes how Dennis Rubin, the city’s fire and EMS chief, testified on April 1 last year that he knew very little about the shady donation of emergency equipment, when it fact he knew quite a bit about it—-as e-mails produced in the course of the council probe reveal.
Talk about explosive charges: Rubin was under oath at the time, so did a top city official engage, you know, in the P-word? After all, he swore that day, under penalty of law to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
That’s a charge serious enough that LL decided to go to the tape (forward to 1:50:45) to see if Rubin made any statements directly contradicted by his e-mails. And from what LL sees, there’s nothing that would indicate the Rubin ever intentionally lied to Phil Mendelson‘s public safety and judiciary committee.
According to the e-mail obtained by the council, Rubin at the time of his April testimony knew that (a) a scheme was underway to donate a used fire truck, (b) acted to help identify a suitable fire truck, (c) knew the fire truck was going to the Dominican Republic, and (d) knew that David Jannarone, a top aide in Fenty’s economic development office, was a prime mover in the transaction.
Did he contradict any of that on April 1?
First thing to point out is that at that point, when so little was publicly known about the transaction, most of the questions jumped off from what little was known—-including that a deputy fire chief, Ronald Gill Jr., had traveled to the Dominican Republic in order to facilitate the transaction.
So most of Mendelson’s questioning dealt with that issue—-what did he know about Gill’s travel? There is nothing in the e-mail to suggest he was notified that Gill would be heading to the Dominican Republic last January, so he was credible when denying that he knew anything about it.
The second thing to point out is that Rubin clearly did not want to answer questions on the matter, referring many times to the Office of the Attorney General and how it would produce a “much more detailed report.” (That report, of course, ended up being three pages long, did not answer many pertinent questions, and ended up emboldening the council to embark on its 10-month probe.) So Neibauer is right to point out the discrepancy between the e-mails and Rubin’s performance on April 1.
Asked about the fire truck itself, Rubin said at the hearing that he knew “very little about that” as well, describing a “1996 or 7” Seagrave pumper with about 197,000 miles. That’s fairly close to the equipment in question—-a ’98 Segrave—-although the mileage figure was way off, a discrepancy accounted for in a later report.
Rubin also acknowledged that he was aware of a fire truck donation taking place: “If you went back when I first arrived,” he said, “there was discussion of a donation of a vehicle. I knew it was somewhere in South America.” Mendelson informed him that the D.R. is not is South America. “Central America, sorry,” Rubin said. Whatever, close enough.
Then Mendelson asked, “Who’s in charge of this?”
Rubin replied, “Who’s in charge of the department or the donation? I’m gonna say one more time, there’s things that happen in the department I’m not aware of up to the second. I’ll take full responsibility, hold me fully accountable, but, was I aware in any way, shape, or form? No sir.” There he appears to be answering as though Mendelson asked about Gill’s travel, not the donation writ large. Mendelson doesn’t follow up, he moves on to ask Rubin whether he reviewed the travel request.
Then the “clueless” line comes up—-again, in the context of Gill’s travel, not the donation as a whole. Mendelson asks Rubin if his position is that he was “clueless” about the travel arrangements. “Yessir, I was clueless,” he replied.
Later on, Rubin again discusses his knowledge of the donation, saying “it was obvious to us that the truck was being donated by someone in the city government.” Mendelson did not directly follow up to ask if he knew who that someone was. Rubin did discuss a little more about what he knew two years ago, describing discussion about whether there would in fact be a donation. He added: “I was unaware it was a tourist destination or an oceanfront town….I wasn’t even sure what country it was going to.”
That is about as close to dissembling as Rubin comes; one e-mail in the committee record shows that on Dec. 26, 2007, he recommended a FEMS official advise on the transaction because he “can speak some Spanish and has been to the D R before.” Is it plausible that he would forget the precise country more than 15 months later? Plausible it is.
The closest Mendelson gets to finding out the most important thing Rubin should know—-the involvement of a top Wilson Building aide—-comes with this question: “So who’s in charge of this program?”
Answers Rubin, “I have no idea, sir….I’m not even sure it’s a program.” Which it wasn’t; it was, as a council report notes, “merely the pet project…of a senior District official [Jannarone] and a well-connected nongovernment individual [Sinclair Skinner].”
Again, Mendelson did not follow up to ask who he’d had contact with.
Mendelson, reached today, makes the good point that the best questions weren’t obvious at the time: “Nobody knew much at that time….In hindsight, it’s obvious what questions should have been asked.”
The at-large councilmember passed on the question of whether Rubin lied under oath, calling it “not clear-cut.” Mendelson said he’d reviewed the tape in the course of his committee’s investigation but did so some time ago.
“I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I don’t have an answer,” he says. “It is a good question.”