Witness Tempering Council hearings get light on executive-branch testimony.

Hearing Impaired: Gray isn’t happy with the Fenty approach to legislative oversight.
Darrow Montgomery

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray’s Fourth of July didn’t start off so well. That morning, a Washington Post editorial chided him personally for being “more interested in second-guessing Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee than in giving her the support she needs” and comparing his behavior to the “meddling” of the old D.C. Board of Education.

Ah, nothing like the whiff of Peggy Cooper Cafritz in the morning.

“[W]hat matters are 45,000 children,” the piece ended, “and their expectation that adults will put their educational needs ahead of petty politics,” parroting a classic Fenty/Rhee rhetorical feint.

What was the Post so upset about? That would be Gray’s decision to, essentially, conduct oversight. At issue were retroactive contracts to rehab facilities set to receive new children from schools closing in the fall. Many of those contracts involve converting schools to a controversial setup where kids from pre-kindergarten all the way up to eighth grade are in the same building.

LL will set aside for a moment the question of whether watching over more than $80 million in new construction money and the shuffling of over $120 million of old money is “petty.” He would much rather focus on the undeniable pettiness of the aftermath.

A week after the Post editorial, Gray held a second hearing on the contracts, and he asked that Rhee, school facilities chief Allen Y. Lew, and their boss, Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso, attend. At the previous hearing, Lew had expressed regret that Rhee and Reinoso hadn’t shown up to defend the pre-K-to-8 policy that seemed to get Gray et al. so riled.

This time, Lew was a no-show; he had come down with a case of laryngitis. Informed of this, Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. quipped, “We have texts and e-mails. Maybe he can text his responses.” Rhee was in the building for most of the hearing but left in the afternoon due to a previous engagement. Reinoso never showed; Fenty spokesperson Dena Iverson says the mayor’s office never got a formal request for Reinoso’s attendance that "standard practice is to send those who are responsible for the hearing subject matter on a day to day basis."

The result was a classic on-the-dais rant from Gray decrying the dearth of policymakers in attendance: “This started off as a partnership, and an enthusiastic partnership, to reform District of Columbia Public Schools,” he said. “There’s been more than a few days where it’s been a nightmare.”

LL told Gray earlier this week he had never seen him so upset on the dais; Gray did not dispute the characterization. Wilson Building sources say that Gray was so pissed after the hearing, he considered launching a “special investigation” into education, which would have involved asking his colleagues for subpoena power.

Says Gray, “It was one of the options we were looking at.…It didn’t seem necessary at this point.”

Why the fury? Gray had personally been subjected to what’s become a favorite Fenty strategy: not providing executive-branch employees to testify at council hearings. Until Friday, his fellow councilmembers had borne the brunt of the no-witness policy. At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, for instance, hasn’t gotten the executive witnesses he has desired in about 20 instances dating back more than a year.

In the past two weeks alone, Fenty functionaries have failed to show for five hearings held by Mendelson’s public safety and judiciary committee. On July 2, for instance, no one from the attorney general’s office showed to discuss how to respond to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the handgun ban. On Monday, no one from the schools system or police department turned up to discuss a bill concerning school security.

Mendelson says he usually doesn’t get an explanation as to why his witnesses don’t show. Recently, he says, letters from agency heads have arrived in his mail in lieu of testimony. (Gray received letters from Lew and Rhee on the school contracts after his first hearing.) Mendelson says he’s had conversations with folks in the mayor’s office over the past year about matters testimonial. But, he says, “the situation’s gotten worse.”

It’s a situation that’s hurt Fenty and his allies in certain cases. A strategy used recently by Gray, Wells, and Mendelson is to “recess” hearings rather than adjourn them, meaning that if legislation is involved, it gets stopped dead in its tracks. That’s even if the legislation is submitted by the mayor’s office, such as an emergency medical services reform package that’s been in a holding pattern since Mendelson recessed a May hearing rather proceed without the testimony of fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin or surrogate.

The Witness Wars have expanded in recent weeks. On July 8, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells called a hearing to discuss the machinations inside the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. (Loose Lips, “Out of Commission,” 6/27). The board’s new chair, AARP manager Lisa Simpson, didn’t show. Neither did the rest of her fellow Fenty appointees, nor did Reinoso, whose attendance had been requested. That didn’t prevent a debacle of a hearing, with a council appointee to the trust board, Winifred Carson-Smith, describing the process of selecting a new executive director for the agency as “corrupt.” The person selected for that post, current Fenty aide Millicent Williams, admitted under Gray’s questioning that she had no idea how much she was going to be paid for the job she had taken.

Being stingy with executive testimony is nothing new. After all, there’s little profit for a mayor in having your people browbeaten by ambitious backbenchers. One former aide to Anthony A. Williams told LL that the pissing matches don’t “strike me as out of proportion or out of context.”

But City Administrator Dan Tangherlini, who often gets blamed in off-the-record grumbling about the no-shows, says that his approach to witness requests has been shaped in part by his days as Williams’ transportation director. Tangherlini cites “casting-call-type hearings,” which, he says, “would just lock the entire cabinet up for a day or two waiting in line to go through a hearing and answer a question the same way someone else had.”

Thus his general attitude, Tangherlini says, is to be as helpful as possible, but not to the point that it interferes with “our need to run the agency.” Furthermore, he says, if a committee asks for a witness from an agency outside of its oversight jurisdiction, that witness isn’t going to show up.

“I don’t actually believe [councilmembers] have a right to interrogate whomever they please,” he says. “I think they have a right to get information related to their committee jurisdiction and the issues they’re covering.”

And, Tangherlini says, he prefers to provide one well-briefed official than a slew of ill-informed folks. “I’m not sure that actually helps get answers to the council,” he says, “and I know it doesn’t help us deliver services, which at the end of the day is frankly what both branches of government are responsible for.”

Y’All Come Back Now, Y’Hear?

Way back in October, LL posed the following question: “Is the Big Green Machine Going After Carol?”

That query, referring to Fenty’s formidable money-raising and campaign-organizing apparatus, was prompted by the early embrace by certain well-connected Fenty fundraisers of Adam Clampitt in his bid to unseat At-Large Republican Carol Schwartz.

With Clampitt having decided to bow out of the race on Monday, LL is comfortable answering his own question thusly: No.

Actually, with Clampitt having decided to bow out of the race and endorse fellow candidate Michael A. Brown, LL is comfortable answering that question with a resounding, “Hell no.”

Brown, of course, is persona non grata in the Fenty political sphere, having: a) endorsed Linda Cropp over Fenty in the waning days of the 2006 mayoral race; and b) challenged Fenty’s anointed candidate for his own Ward 4 council seat, Muriel Bowser, in last year’s special election.

Clampitt’s demise also seems to indicate that Fenty has essentially decided to stay out of the at-large council races this election cycle. From the beginning, the 33-year-old Capitol Hill resident was banking on Hizzoner’s backing, campaigning as a Fenty surrogate with strong endorsements of the mayoral schools takeover and other issues.

That leaves Fenty backers looking for a Schwartz alternative with Dee Hunter, who, to date, put more energy into trying to emulate his former boss, At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania, whose dark-green campaign insignia he’s blatantly ripped off. (A tipster also noticed that Hunter and Catania showed up to the Palisades Fourth of July

Parade in nearly identical Chrysler Sebring convertibles.)

Hunter is now hoping he can tap the pro-Fenty crowd: “I’m the only candidate in the race now who is working to advance the mayor’s agenda.…He’s a good mayor,” he says.

LL stopped in at the opening of his sharp new U Street NW storefront headquarters on Saturday, an event complete with jazz band, salmon cakes, and Ben’s chili. Green Machine support was not immediately evident: Hunter mentioned to LL that Fenty money man Ben Soto was on his way, but Soto didn’t show.

As for Clampitt’s befuddling alliance with Brown, here’s one reason: His campaign, months of door-to-door canvassing aside, was far from lean and mean. His June 15 financial report revealed that his campaign was carrying more than $12,000 in debt, having spent big money on leasing and renovating office space, paying high-priced consultants and software, and a setting up a slick Web site.

Early on, with the help of Fenty financial doyenne Judith Terra, Clampitt racked up the $1,000-a-pop donors, including AOL founder James Kimsey. But that traffic fell off significantly as the campaign progressed, and Clampitt, a junior executive at PR firm Burson Marsteller, doesn’t have the deep pockets to self-finance his run.

Brown does. Which sets up a hypothetical quid pro quo along these lines: Brown loses motivated competition; Clampitt retires his debt.

Said Clampitt of a possible Brown bailout, “That’s something yet to be determined, but when you create an alliance…there are a lot of decisions made and a lot of things happen.”

Political Potpourri

• After attending Clampitt’s surrender press conference, LL sweated his ass off Monday pedaling down Pennsylvania Avenue to catch the media circus surrounding the District’s retooled handgun laws. He arrived in time to find Attorney General Peter Nickles at the mic on the Wilson Building steps. Fenty stood behind him, with police chief Cathy Lanier, council chair Gray, and colleagues Brown, Mendelson, Schwartz, Catania, Jack Evans, Mary M. Cheh, and Harry Thomas Jr.

And Ward 5 gadfly-for-all-seasons Robert Brannum.

Actually, Brannum was just slightly behind the governmental cohort, leaning on the marble balustrade in natty suit and bow tie and sporting his complement of U.S. Air Force medals. (As he often does, Brannum had testified earlier in the day at a council hearing. Incidentally, here’s Air Force Instruction 36-2903, Rule 4.4, on the Wear of Awards and Decorations by Retirees and Honorably Discharged Veterans: “Honorably discharged and retired Air Force members may wear full-size or miniature medals on civilian suits on appropriate occasions such as Memorial Day and Armed Forces Day.”)

Brannum, queried about his high-profile positioning, says there was a simple reason for it: “So I could sit!”

“And,” he added, “I could oversee my government.”

Fenty press aide Alan Heymann said Brannum was free to ensconce himself wherever he likes. “It’s the people’s building,” he says.

Got a tip for Loose Lips? Send suggestions to lips@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 460, 24 hours a day. And visit Loose Lips on the Web at washingtoncitypaper.com.

Correction: Columnist Mike DeBonis misreported comments by mayoral spokesperson Dena Iverson that the council submitted no formal request for Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso's presence at a July 11 hearing. In fact, council staff had sent formal requests, and Iverson's comments as reported were an initial response to DeBonis' inquiry; Iverson shortly afterward revised her statement to say that the "standard practice is to send those who are responsible for the hearing subject matter on a day to day basis." Due to notetaking errors, DeBonis mistakenly reported the initial response.

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Brannum is a clown.
Robert Brannum is a decorated retired veteran who served his country. What did you do?

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