The John A. Wilson Building in Washington, D.C.
The John A. Wilson Building. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/FILE

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Sherryl Hobbs Newman has been at the heart of scandals consuming no fewer than three different D.C. agencies over the course of her long career. But the District just doesn’t know how to quit her.

Up until the end of last year, Newman worked as a program manager at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, an agency spokesman confirms to Loose Lips. She oversaw the agency’s regulation of short-term rental services like Airbnb, drawing a salary of $131,580, according to documents DCRA submitted to the D.C. Council. And that certainly raises LL’s eyebrows.

Newman is a seasoned veteran of the D.C. bureaucracy, so it’s not a surprise to find her in a management role—until you look at her record. A City Paper article all the way back in 2007 declared her time in the public sector over after she was fired from the Office of Tax and Revenue for her role in the Harriette Walters scandal, where Walters and other employees under Newman’s supervision made off with $48 million in city refund checks.

There was good reason to suspect she’d never work in government again after that, considering she’d also overseen several blunders at the Department of Motor Vehicles and failed to notice some questionable payments in her time as secretary of the District.

But she popped up again as former Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd’s chief of staff in 2015, where she served until Todd was booted from office in 2020. Then she landed on her feet at DCRA in January 2021, according to agency spokesman Jameel Harris.

Newman has since left for a job with a local PR firm, but it seems her performance at DCRA left a bit to be desired as well. Witnesses at a D.C. Council oversight hearing last month described a host of problems with the agency’s oversight of short-term rentals, which only started in earnest this year following years of legislative wrangling. Though Airbnb hosts and other property owners have operated in a legal gray area for some time now, this represents the city’s first real attempts to license and regulate the process, and it seems Newman’s stewardship of the matter was a bit uneven. LL’s attempts to reach Newman were unsuccessful.

Felicia Dantzler, president of a chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees representing 95 DCRA employees, told the Council that Newman “never acquired a staff” in her year overseeing the program. That left other employees at DCRA’s Occupational and Professional Licensing Administration reviewing requests for short-term rental licenses in addition to their other work, a big problem for a division that Dantzler described as “already understaffed and overworked.”

“My members have described the work environment as a plantation and a modern-day sweatshop,” Dantzler said during the Feb. 24 hearing.

DCRA Director Ernest Chrappah disputed Dantzler’s description during his own testimony, arguing that the agency has worked well with short-term rental companies and prospective hosts to stand up a robust regulatory process. But complaints about DCRA are certainly nothing new, considering the Council is moving to break up the agency and reorganize it following years of persistent complaints about its competence.

Several people seeking to rent out their homes also testified that the agency has frustrated them with its interpretation of the short-term rental law. The bill formally legalizing these rentals attracted intense pushback from the homesharing platforms (as well as Mayor Muriel Bowser) for being too restrictive, and these hosts said DCRA’s interpretation of the law has made it even more difficult for the industry.

The law allows many homeowners to rent out an English basement or some other accessory unit, so long as they still live in the primary part of the residence. But DCRA has been claiming that they can’t flip the script, like living in the basement and renting out the top floor.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a lead author of the short-term rental law and frequent sparring partner with Bowser over the issue, said during the hearing that he found that interpretation “illogical and contrary to the intent of the law.”

“The law is quite clear that an individual can rent out a majority of a house on a short-term basis,” Mendelson said. “But somehow they make a distinction and say the owner can’t live in the basement.”

He noted that Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen joined him on a letter to DCRA looking for more clarity on the issue, but didn’t receive a robust response. Chrappah was hesitant to provide more details during the hearing, arguing chiefly that the law differentiates between hosts renting out a “primary” versus “accessory” part of a home, but otherwise declining to discuss how DCRA came to that conclusion or whether it might reconsider.

That makes it a bit difficult to tell whether Newman had a hand in that decision as well, or whether it’s simply a coincidence that more dysfunction would follow her arrival in the department. Whatever the case may be, Harris says “existing staff” are managing the short-term rental license process “until that position is filled.”

And the stakes are high for the troubled agency to get things right: DCRA has told prospective short-term renters that they have until April 10 to get a license before it starts handing out fines.