Every profession has a dream position—a playground where ambitious high-flyers at the top of their field can put their skills on display for the whole world. For a computer programmer, it might be cooking up the next batch of genius-ware for Netscape. Those who are good with a bat and glove probably dream of batting fourth for the New York Yankees. And conservative policy wonks long for that reclining leather chair at the Heritage Foundation.
But if you happen to be a financial investigator—a keen-eyed bean counter with a nose for corruption and incompetence—you can’t ask for a nicer station than inspector general of the District government. Every other week, District newspapers and officious community types lift up the blankets on the latest scandal churned out by the D.C. bureaucracy. One week it’s the unqualified contractor who pocketed city money; the next it’s the office that issued millions in Medicaid payments to ineligible beneficiaries. Take your pick—scandal is one of the few things D.C. bureaucrats do well.
The landscape of larceny is so juicy that it’s hard to know where to start. That’s apparently been a problem for Angela Avant, who was confirmed as D.C. inspector general way back in December. At the time, Avant pledged a swift strike against the District government’s most time-honored traditions. “It is my plan to become effective as quickly as possible,” she told the control board when she punched in.
Eight months later, however, Avant is still wading in files at her 12th Street NW offices and promising, rather than delivering, the goods on various D.C. agencies. Her targets may be manifest, but it is her critics who have become legion. The District building is full of whispers and growing criticism about the inspector general’s apparent cluelessness in this investigative land of plenty.
Shortly after Avant took office, Donna Mauch, the District’s court-appointed advocate for the city’s mentally ill, tipped her off to an unfolding scandal originating from the city’s Department of Human Services (DHS). In a Jan. 25 letter, Mauch detailed how JMC Associates, a District-based firm, had mismanaged several contracts with DHS to provide housing and other services for the city’s indigent mentally ill patients. Despite receiving $4 million yearly from DHS, Mauch said, JMC had failed to provide its patients with basic services such as housing, food, and medicine. Mauch felt that JMC’s apparent malfeasance was severe enough to make it “an immediate priority of [Avant’s] new administration.”
If Avant made a priority of the investigation, she did a nice job of keeping it a secret. While mental health advocates screamed for audits, JMC’s services continued to disintegrate. In March, after several months of failing to pay for rent and other services on behalf of its clients, JMC filed for bankruptcy.
Despite the red flags, Avant didn’t arrive at the scene until after a Washington City Paper article exposed JMC’s financial shenanigans and its shoddy record of service to its patients (“Taking the Tank,” 5/17). Fraud investigators from the Social Security Administration and the FBI also launched probes concurrently with Avant. “I’d say we all got involved at the same time,” says Avant.
It’s not as if Avant somehow lacked the authority to bust a move on JMC: The federal law creating her office gives her more power than any other inspector in District history. Avant can subpoena witnesses for investigations, set her own budget, and choose which firms audit city financial records. Like the District’s heavyweight Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams, Avant was hired by Mayor Marion Barry but can be fired only by the control board.
A source with the D.C. Mental Health Commission says Avant missed a big target in JMC: “I would have to say that I’ve not seen a great deal of activity from her office,” says the official, who asked not to be named.
The frustration has reached a point where the whispers are becoming audible. “As far as I can tell, she hasn’t done anything,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. “If she’s going to continue in that job, she’s got to produce.”
Thus far, Avant has produced exactly two investigations. In February, she recommended the dismissal of several Department of Public Works (DPW) employees who used city-owned trucks to block downtown streets in a protest of budget cuts—a no-brainer that anybody who was stuck in the resulting traffic jam could have handled. (Barry rejected the recommendations, opting instead to suspend the employees.) In the other investigation, Avant found that an officer of the Metropolitan Police Department had fraudulently collected unemployment benefits while under suspension for taking home a cruiser without authorization.
Avant has not issued any written reports documenting investigations or other projects her office has undertaken. The only document produced by her office for public consumption is a vaguely worded “mission statement” released in June—six months after her “mission” began.
At an interview in her office, Avant was animated, friendly, and eager to defend her record. When asked about her slow start, she blamed budget problems—proof that she’s learned something about how D.C. bureaucrats operate. From January through April, when $7.2 million in funding for her office kicked in, Avant had a bare-bones staff of six to cover the entire D.C. government. Then again, former D.C. Auditor Russell Smith, armed with a fraction of Avant’s statutory power, churned out over 30 investigations and reports a year with a staff of 12.
Avant explains that she has been busy clearing out the cobwebs in the office, which she says had been “dormant” for two years before she arrived. And she claims that ever since her budget came online she has focused on hiring top-flight investigators and reaching her full-staff target of 45 professionals. “My focus has been on creating my office,” she says. “It’s easy for people to criticize me when they don’t know what’s going on.”
Unfortunately, people who know what’s going on figure among Avant’s most substantial critics. In March, control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer sent Avant a terse letter requesting a progress report on her investigative activities. In a pointed bit of editorial-by-memo, Brimmer attached a copy of the control board resolution that confirmed her as the inspector general. “When the [control board] approved your nomination as Inspector General...it did so on the basis of your undertaking to comply with the principles and expectations of the [control board] as set forth in the Resolution of Approval...,” Brimmer wrote.
A control board source said that Avant responded by parading one of her new hires before the board along with promises to attack government waste.
Part of what has control board members shaking their heads is the thunderous silence from Avant’s office. Although six-month progress reports are a rule of thumb for inspectors general, Avant says she won’t issue her first report until this fall. “The fiscal year will end in August, so I feel it would be foolish to waste money on a report at the end of the fiscal year,” she says.
Avant is apparently too busy working on her own version of transformation to concern herself with updating the control board. She has an expansive vision for her office that includes creating a “consulting” division of five professionals to assist D.C. government agencies in delivering services and information more efficiently to local residents.
In a recent interview, Avant said that the division will assist DPW with a new “strategic plan” to restructure the agency in accordance with its various “business units” (e.g., motor vehicles, trash pickup, sanitation enforcement, traffic tickets, etc.). Her efforts to assist DPW, however, come as news to DPW’s leaders. “We are not doing any projects with Angela Avant right now,” says DPW Director Larry King. “But that does not mean that we won’t in the future.”
Still, signs that Avant is training her sights on inefficient D.C. agencies are finally beginning to surface. On Aug. 8, Avant met with Paul Offner, the city’s Medicaid troubleshooter, to discuss strategies for trimming the District budget for Medicaid administration. In the meeting, Offner noted that the city sends questionnaires to Medicaid recipients as a way of determining their eligibility for the program—a method that invites abuse. “Let’s be honest: Sending people letters asking whether they qualify for benefits is not the best way determine whether they’re eligible,” says Offner. Although Offner’s office, the Commission on Health Care Finance, has already expunged 20,000 ineligible recipients from Medicaid rolls, he says that Avant can help matters further. “Where she goes from here is something that she can decide,” he says. Still, Offner notes that talks with Avant on Medicaid are “preliminary.”
Avant brushes off criticism of her unremarkable record and insists that her office’s 15 ongoing investigations will eventually silence her detractors. “It’s serious work to fix the city,” she says.
But fixing the city requires a long-term commitment to her investigative mission—a commitment that Avant is loath to make. When asked whether she will complete her six-year term, Avant responds, “I don’t know. That’s my plan today, but plans are changeable.”
Fraudulent D.C. bureaucrats and contractors who are looking for indications that they can outlast Avant will be heartened to hear that she is officially on a leave of absence from Corning Inc.—an arrangement that she says involves no pay, benefits, or perks. That means Avant can bail on the District whenever it suits her. “If I am desirous of returning to the company, then I have the opportunity to do that,” she says of Corning. And Avant is hardly anchored here: She still hasn’t registered to vote in District elections.
With a threadbare record and the control board breathing down her neck, Avant has little time to complete hard-hitting investigations and audits to bust out the fraud and mismanagement that are part of everyday life in the D.C. bureaucracy. If she fails, she may have to take advantage of Corning’s open-door policy sooner than she planned.CP