City Paper is not for tourists
This afternoon, Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi tucked his tail between his legs—-as he has been doing often the past six weeks—-and made his way down to the Anacostia Community Museum to address the members of the Anacostia Coordinating Council about the $40 million tax scandal.
The speech was notable because Gandhi’s been essentially tight-lipped about the scandal to the press since the story broke and because it represents part of his effort to save his job in the wake of the greatest municipal embezzlement scandal in the city’s history. Gandhi asked to address this group, and he showed up today with D.C. Treasurer Lasana Mack and spokesperson Karyn-Siobhan Robinson in front of a crowd several dozen strong.
Robinson says that Gandhi’s addressed “a number of community and business groups” since the scandal. This has been the first where press has been invited (and not by Gandhi).
“More than anything,” he began, “what I have to say is how deeply sorry I am for what happened in the tax department.”
From there began what was essentially a hour-long “my bad.” Some highlights:
- “We basically lost the confidence and the trust of the citizens.”
- “What was [achieved] over the past 10 years was lost in that day, in one day….I’m deeply disgusted about that.”
- “This has been a profound management failure.” (That’s an oldie, but a goodie.)
- “Now all of us are branded as inefficient, incompetent, and worst of all, cheats.”
- “The bottom line is that this scandalous, fraudulent thing has heppened, and it’s tearing me apart.”
- “We have been burned badly.”
- “The most honest answer is, we made a major mistake. We goofed.”
As far as his own job goes, Gandhi stuck to the line he gave the day the scandal broke: I’m here as long as you want me, and I want fix this mess. “As long as I have the confidence of the mayor and the council collectively, I stay in this job, he said. “I’m not going to fight for this job.”
Later Gandhi said, “It would be far easier to go home….It happened on my watch—-I must fix it.” At another point, he said quitting “would be a dereliction of my responsibility to the city.”
Gandhi several times reminded the crowd of the sorry state of the District’s financial operations when he arrived a decade ago. He reminded folks that he’d fired 15 tax-office employees already and said it was “quite likely” that more firings were to come. Gandhi also talked up an internal audit committee he’d recently named to look at city fiscal operations and controls, whose members include Sheldon Cohen of investment firm Farr, Miller & Washington, retired Arthur Young & Co. auditor Donald H. Chapin, and Federal City Council CEO John Hill.
More than once Gandhi was asked exactly how widespread the scandal was, to which he replied he didn’t know: Federal investigators have seized all of those paper tax records, and he couldn’t get at them. (In fact, he said, city auditors have had to ask permission to inspect those records to complete this year’s report.)
Ward 6 muckamuck Charles Burger gave him the hardest questioning of the day, essentially asking why the firings stopped at the Office of Tax and Revenue and didn’t ascend into the executive suite. Gandhi managed to dodge the question.
In any case, the Gandhi PR strategy seems to be working: The meeting turned into a lovefest of sorts for Gandhi, with virtually everyone who spoke up expressing support for the CFO.
Longtime activist Eugene Kinlow spoke up for Gandhi, and after the CFO left (in a 15-passenger District van), former Councilmember and ACC Chair Arrington Dixon assessed Gandhi’s performance as “good, very good.”
Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr., as he is wont to do, walked in just as Gandhi walked out, and proceeded to praise the CFO: “He has been a tremendous asset to the financial health of our city,” he told what was left of the crowd.