DC Housing Authority Director Brenda Donald in 2018
Brenda Donald at a Nov. 6, 2018 election victory party for Mayor Muriel Bowser Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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D.C. Housing Authority Director and public servant Brenda Donald is refusing to reveal who approved her $41,250 bonus payment despite numerous requests from At-Large Councilmember Robert White, who chairs the D.C. Council’s Committee on Housing.

Donald received the maximum bonus allowed under her contract—15 percent of her $275,000 annual salary—on Jan. 6, according to internal DCHA records. White has been trying to learn who approved the bonus and what performance metrics they used since March 9, shortly after City Paper first reported the sizable reward.

Donald has so far rebuffed White’s questions, most recently during a tense budget oversight hearing Monday. Donald gave several reasons for keeping White and the public in the dark about her publicly funded bonus, which is worth 20 percent more than the yearly earnings of a minimum wage worker in D.C. First and foremost, Donald argues, her compensation is none of the public’s business.

“Our position is that that information is privileged and confidential,” Donald said Monday. “And it’s between my board of directors and myself.”

Plus, Donald claims, bonus payments are common in the public housing industry. And as it specifically pertains to inquiries via White’s Committee on Housing, well, the details are none of his concern, according to Donald, because her compensation is not paid for with local funds that the committee is in charge of allocating.

“This is a budget oversight hearing for the funds that the D.C. Housing Authority is provided by the District of Columbia government,” Donald said.

White did not take kindly to that sort of obfuscation, but he does not appear ready to flex the committee’s subpoena powers, according to his spokesperson Devon Haynes. There has also been some question about whether Donald’s bonus violates District law, but the precise answer is unclear. Haynes says via email that the Council’s legal adviser has said they would need answers to White’s questions in order to make such a determination.

“This is a public hearing,” White said to Donald during Monday’s hearing. “This is the committee that does oversight. No other committee does oversight, local of federal. And the question I’m asking is not a personnel question. I’m asking who approved the bonus, director.”

Donald repeated the answer that her chief operating officer gave to City Paper earlier this month—that an ad hoc committee of DCHA’s board of commissioners set the standards for bonuses, evaluated her performance, and issued the reward. That was as much detail as Donald was willing to give.

Former DCHA Commissioner Ann Hoffman tells City Paper she recalls former board Chair Dionne Bussey-Reeder forming an ad hoc committee toward the end of last year, around the time Mayor Muriel Bowser was proposing legislation that ultimately ousted most sitting board members and brought in a new panel. But Hoffman declined to join the ad hoc committee and says the full board never approved a performance plan or the bonus payment for Donald, as her contract requires. Neither Donald nor Bussey-Reeder replied to a messages seeking clarification.

Former DCHA Commissioner Kenneth Council also says the full board never approved a performance plan or the payment.

“The board never discussed it, we never talked about it, and it never came to me,” Council says.

The agency has not posted any records showing an ad hoc committee met, or even exists. It has so far refused to provide those, and other records related to Donald’s bonus: DCHA missed a legal deadline of April 11 to respond to City Paper’s Freedom of Information Act request for the ad hoc committee’s minutes and other documents related to its discussions, including Donald’s annual performance plan and goals.

Given Donald’s responses to White this week, it does not appear she is willing to reveal those details:

“Is the bonus normally approved by the entire board?” White asked during the hearing. (Donald’s contract appears to require approval from the full board, according to a copy of the document obtained by City Paper.)

“I don’t know what the previous practice was,” Donald responded. “I know the ad hoc committee is the one the board assigned to manage that responsibility.”

“How many people are on the ad hoc committee?” White asked.

“Sir, you’re asking me to keep going down this road to discuss something that really is not relevant to the FY 24 budget,” Donald replied.

“This is my hearing, director, and I’m going to determine what is relevant to this committee and what is not,” White said. “How many people were on the ad hoc committee?”

“I don’t recall,” Donald said.

White, who recently tussled with Donald over what he views as systemic—and in at least one case potentially criminal—issues at DCHA, decided not to push the issue further.

“This is the reason that the agency sits under such a cloud of distrust. What you heard from witness after witness are people who are unhappy with the agency, unhappy with communication, and unhappy with performance,” White said. “And you come to a hearing and refuse to answer questions. I’m going to keep moving, but I think the public and this committee have all the information we need on this issue. If it should have been done, then you would have no problem answering the question.”