Melinda Bolling
Melinda Bolling Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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The last time we heard from former Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Director Melinda Bolling, she was on her way to Prince George’s County. Bolling exited the D.C. government in 2018 to head the county’s Department of Permitting, Inspections, and Enforcement (essentially DCRA’s equivalent). She left two whistleblower lawsuits accusing her of retaliation and violating public records law (one of which cost D.C. taxpayers $200,000) and a host of chronic, unresolved issues in her wake.

Despite Bolling’s troublesome tenure leading DCRA, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced late last month that Bolling will serve as acting director of the Department of For Hire Vehicles. (The appointment is a bit of a switcheroo, as Bowser tapped Ernest Chrappah to replace Bolling at DCRA in 2018 while he was still serving as director of DFHV.)

Bowser originally appointed Bolling director of DCRA at the start of her first term in 2015 to reform the massive and unwieldy agency responsible for everything from issuing business licenses to enforcing building codes. But as the issues at DCRA persisted during and after Bolling’s watch, the D.C. Council voted, over Bowser’s objection, to split the agency in two last year as a step toward reform. (It’s not exactly going well.)

Bowser’s office did not respond to questions asking why the mayor believes Bolling is qualified for the job and whether she considered the allegations in the whistleblower lawsuits in her decision.

Reforming a massive agency is one thing, but Bolling’s record as a manager is not exactly sterling. Her tenure really started to unravel in the fall of 2017. The agency was facing a backlog of more than 200 FOIA requests, and in what Bolling has described as an effort to speed up the process, she issued a directive that then-Office of Open Government Director Traci Hughes said ran afoul of the law. Then, Bolling dismissed two employees who challenged her orders—FOIA officer Genet Amare and general counsel Charles Thomas—both of whom filed whistleblower claims alleging retaliation. Amare’s lawsuit resulted in the six-figure settlement, according to a copy of the agreement obtained by City Paper; Thomas’ case is still ongoing.

The directive in question required FOIA officers to search for public records without the help of division employees who had other responsibilities but also best knew where to look for the requested information. 

The problem, according to Amare, was that FOIA officers didn’t receive training on how to search for records across DCRA’s many divisions. A messy and inconsistent filing system further complicated those searches. Amare has said in court records that electronic databases were not always up to date, and some records were kept as hard copies in closets, filing cabinets, and desk drawers. One employee apparently saved documents to their computer’s desktop, rather than uploading them to the database.

Then, according to Amare, Bolling directed the FOIA officers to prepare affidavits for division employees to sign, certifying that the division employees had conducted a thorough and complete search when, in fact, that wasn’t true.

Amare raised her concerns to the Office of Open Government and the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel, and in February 2018 Bolling fired Amare. But the D.C. Department of Human Resources found the termination was likely retaliatory, and Amare got her job back. Thomas was not so fortunate.

Bolling fired Thomas in April 2018 after he too raised concerns about her FOIA directive and her termination of Amare. Thomas, whom Bolling handpicked to be DCRA general counsel when she became the director, and had worked in the D.C. government since 1999, alleges in his lawsuit that Bolling fired him out of retaliation when he stuck up for Amare and accuses Bolling of having “serious challenges in objectively applying the law of the District of Columbia, especially to developers,” according to an amended complaint filed in January 2022.

One example of Bolling’s selective enforcement, Thomas alleges in his complaint, involves the sketchy circumstances around the proliferation of digital signs popping up all over D.C. around 2016. Don MacCord, the man behind that digital sign company, served time in prison for fraud and embezzlement in Washington state, and the scandal in D.C. contributed to the downfall of former Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans

In Thomas’ view, Bolling’s FOIA directive and the proliferation of what ended up being illegally hung digital signs, are linked. Thomas alleges in his lawsuit that Bolling’s directive was intended to withhold the sign bracket permits, inspection records, and other materials related to MacCord’s company from the public.

Thomas says in the lawsuit that DCRA’s Permit and Investigations Division issued permits to hang the digital signs, and then-Chief Building Official Lynn Underwood was reluctant to instruct his staff to gather the related records when FOIA requests started rolling in. Bolling then stepped in and issued the directive specifically prohibiting Underwood’s employees, who best knew where the records were kept, from searching for those records. Instead, the FOIA officers were supposed to conduct the search.

In her deposition for Thomas’ lawsuit, taken last October, Bolling claimed her instructions were misinterpreted. She says she told FOIA officers to search for electronic records while divisional employees would search for hard copies. Then, Bolling said, the FOIA officers were to provide blank affidavits for the division employees to fill out and sign, stating that they conducted a thorough and complete search. But Amare believed the directive amounted to fraud and feared that it would make her complicit in falsifying legal documents, she said in her interview with DCHR in February 2018.

“This point is particularly important because Ms. Bolling’s directive required DCRA program officers to sign FOIA affidavits attesting to the ‘reasonableness’ of searches which they did not personally conduct,” according to the DCHR investigation from April 2018.

Bolling, during her 2022 deposition, further clarified that the intent of her directive was to speed things up. She said the process of printing electronic records was too time consuming for division employees who had other responsibilities. So in order to save time, she wanted FOIA officers to print the electronic records and bring them to the various divisions in the agency. Then, the division employees were supposed to search for paper documents and in addition to another search of electronic records to ensure none were missed.

“Doesn’t this process you just described require two searches to be conducted as opposed to one search?” Thomas’ attorney, Marc Rifkind, asked Bolling during her deposition. She insisted the process was more efficient because of the amount of time it took to print electronic records.

Bolling also said in her deposition that Bowser’s general counsel, Betsy Cavendish, approved the new FOIA process. Rifkind questioned why Bolling would go to Cavendish for permission instead of Thomas, her own general counsel. Bolling said, “Thomas hadn’t put anything in effect to [address the backlog of FOIA requests].” Rifkind pointed out that Thomas had hired two new FOIA officers, including Amare, to focus on the backlog. Bolling acknowledged that she wasn’t supervising the two new employees and was generally unaware of their progress. (In her own deposition in Thomas’ case, Amare said she processed 314 requests, and, along with another FOIA officer, reduced the backlog from over 200 down to 13.)

Thomas, for his part, is suspicious of Bolling’s claim. He tells City Paper via email that he “spoke at length with Betsy Cavendish about the FOIA issue, and at no time did Ms. Cavendish mention that she had endorsed a change in the FOIA program.” In an email, Cavendish declined to confirm whether she approved Bolling’s new FOIA directive.

Bolling said she ultimately fired Thomas for a host of reasons, all of which he disputes in one way or another. Bolling said the final straw was when she learned that Thomas hadn’t checked Amare’s references before he hired her (she previously worked as a FOIA officer for the Metropolitan Police Department). But Thomas says that responsibility falls to DCHR.

He also points to his performance evaluation that Bolling completed almost exactly one year before she fired him. Bolling rated Thomas three out of four in each of the seven categories and wrote glowing reviews of his work:

“Without question, the performance of the Office of the General Counsel is exceptional,” Bolling wrote, and “needless to say, in the area of advice and counsel, Charles through the Office of General Counsel has performed exceedingly well.” She called him a “calming personality” and a tireless worker, who fostered good working relationships with those inside and outside the agency, according to the review Bolling signed on April 25, 2017.

Her one critique was to encourage Thomas to attend meetings with clients “so that he understands the needs of the program offices as well as the needs of his staff.”

“All told, Ms. Bolling’s stated reasons for terminating me were mere fabrications,” Thomas says via email. “She terminated me in violation of the Whistleblower Act.”