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No answers yet in the Wilson Building whodunit of the hour: Why was Grayce Wiggins fired?

Wiggins is the rent administrator axed in August, months after a pro-tenant ruling regarding the Kennedy-Warren building in Cleveland Park aroused the ire of local landlords, developers, and lawyers. Tenant advocates have cried foul play ever since the firing.

Yesterday, a joint hearing held by Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry and Ward 3 Councilmember Mary M. Cheh tried to pry out of city officials the circumstances behind Wiggins’ firing. It was tough prying, indeed.

Leila Edmonds, chief of the Department of Housing and Community Development, appeared before the committee, along with her deputy in charge of the Housing Regulation Administration, Anita Visser—-Wiggins’ immediate supervisor. Also appearing was Phillip Lattimore, general counsel from the city’s Department of Human Resources.

Why send a lawyer from DHR? That became apparent as soon as questioning began: Lattimore was there to make sure Edmonds and Visser uttered nary a peep about Wiggins’ firing, lest they run afoul of District regulations on the disclosure of personnel records.

Under questioning from Barry, Edmonds repeatedly refused to respond after Lattimer whispered in her ear. Barry pressed hard, threatening to use the subpoena power the committee granted itself last week. “We will subpoena any and all records,” he said. “Written, e-mails, telephone logs, satellite.”

Cheh was even more combative, challenging the invocation of the “personnel matter” defense. Cheh read from the D.C. Municipal Regulations, which provide an exception for the D.C. Council to examine personnel records. That, still, didn’t get her very far. Edmonds said, “The concern is that this is a public forum.”

“Does it say anything in this [law] about a public forum?” Cheh asked. “I think the answer’s no.”

Barry and Cheh did get a few fun tidbits out of them. For instance, Edmonds testified that she and other housing officials did meet with three two of the most powerful landlord attorneys in town, Richard Luchs (aka The “Painmaker”) and Vincent Mark Policy of Greenstein, DeLorme & Luchs, in addition to tenant attorney Rick Eisen of Eisen & Rome, regarding a decision Wiggins was involved in. At that meeting, she says, no issue of substance, let alone Wiggins’ job performance, was discussed: “The nature of that meeting was just to discuss process and procedures and to discuss next steps.”

Under questioning from Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, Visser also said that the controversial Kennedy-Warren decision had been passed to the Attorney General’s office for review. “When cases had novel issues or complex or potentially far-reaching impact,” she said, the AG’s office was brought in to make sure the decisions could “withstand legal scrutiny and review.”

Graham compared the council’s inquiry into the rent administrator’s firing as being akin to the congressional inquiries into the 2006 firings of U.S. attorneys by the Bush justice department.

Wiggins did not attend the hearing. Barry, Cheh, and Graham all made reference to conversations they had had with Wiggins; Graham recounted the story of how Wiggins was informed that she was being fired at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday evening after a long day of meetings. She was given minimal time to collect her personal effects before being kicked out of her office.

About an hour into the questioning of the executive witnesses, Interim Attorney General Peter Nickles showed up, and the stonewalling came to a head. Nickles continued to direct Edmonds and Visser to stay mum, not only on personnel grounds but also on grounds of “deliberative process,” a broader, ill-defined privilege.

At one point, Nickles audibly shooshed the witnesses.

Things came to a head when Cheh pressed Edmonds and Visser on when they first decided that Wiggins had to go. Cheh has caught them in a bit of contradiction: Edmonds at one point had held out the long span of time between the Kennedy-Warren decision and Wiggins’ firing was proof of there being no connection between the two. Visser then said the decision to fire Wiggins had developed “over a long period of time,” leading Cheh to ask exactly when the idea to fire Wiggins first presented itself.

Nickles would have none of it: “We’re starting down a slippery slope and I’m gonna stop it.”

Cheh pressed the fact that Edmonds had already spoken on the subject in response to earlier questions. “I think the initial questions were on the edge and perhaps should not have been answered,” Nickles said.

“The door has been opened,” replied Cheh.

“The door has not been opened,” Nickles said, later adding, “I think you’re getting into deep water here, Ms. Cheh, with all due respect.”

“I like deep water,” said Cheh.

“Hope you’re a good swimmer,” Nickles, a triathlete, said. “I can swim very well.”

From that point, things settled down as Nickles promised to give a full airing of Wiggins’ personnel file and any other city records relating to her firing behind closed doors, with the following proviso: “I will not at this point agree to carte blanche to circulate this to the outside world.”

Nickles agreed to make the personnel file, if not the rest of the documents, available as early as this morning. Throughout the hearing, he insisted that the stonewalling was a matter of following the law: “Any insinuation we’ve got something to hide is to me unacceptable.”

UPDATE, 9/29: Eisen writes in to point out that, while he was no Wiggins fan, he is also not one of the “most powerful landlord attorneys in town”:

I note with a mix of amusement and horror your totally inaccurate characterization of me…as one “of the most powerful landlord attorneys in town”. First, for almost 30 years, my practice has consisted almost exclusively of representing tenant associations, cooperative corporations and condominium associations; the only landlords I have ever represented have been a few nonprofit owners who were attempting to deal with issues pitting most of the tenants against a very few who were acting against the interests of the overwhelming majority. Second, I am not one of the most powerful anything in town. The reality is that I was at the meeting at the Housing Department representing a tenant association, not one of whose members had opposed a voluntary agreement that Ms. Wiggins had improvidently (and, in my view, illegally) denied.

LL apologizes for the error and has corrected the post above.