Around noon last Thursday, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty was sitting on a stool in Nathans Restaurant, amid an interrogation from Georgetown restaurateur-cum-journalist Carol Joynt. To that point, the discussion had revolved around the usual administrative minutiae—the budget, bond ratings, the schools.
Then, said Joynt, “We’ve seen that President Obama has already plucked somebody from your administration…”
Fenty straightened up and brightened. “Yes!” he said, with unusual gusto.
Then Joynt immediately continued her question: “What if he were to pluck Michelle Rhee from you?”
Damn, LL could see him thinking. Back to being the education mayor.
Like a proud papa, Fenty clearly wanted to crow about Vivek Kundra, the chief technology officer he had hired less than three months after gaining the mayoralty. Last month, Kundra was tapped by Barack Obama to be the federal chief information officer—the first person ever to hold that title, which confers massive influence over federal technology spending.
Kundra became by far the most prominent link between the Obama and Fenty administrations, the first personnel dividends paid on Hizzoner’s investment in an early presidential endorsement in 2007. Sure, Obama’s trip to Ben’s Chili Bowl with Fenty soon after arriving in town as president-elect sent a nice message to the District, but his calling up Kundra—a fast-talking, buzzword-spouting, conference-hopping tech evangelist—to the big leagues was a clear vote of confidence in Fenty (and, it should be noted, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, for whom Kundra worked before coming to D.C.).
Fenty has made it an administration priority to kowtow to Obama. And that doesn’t just extend to keeping schools open during snowstorms simply because the Prez has demanded “flinty Chicago toughness” out of Washingtonians. Here’s the first thing Fenty’s chief of staff, Carrie S. Kohns, mentioned last week in a council hearing when reciting the 2009 goals of the Executive Office of the Mayor: “This year, the office will continue to develop strong relationships with the incoming presidential administration to make sure our new President, his family and his team feel truly welcome in our great city and of course to create an even more cooperative relationship with the federal government.”
“Cooperative relationship” apparently involves feeding Fenty-plucked talent into federal Washington. The mayor loves to tout his nose for up-and-coming civic leaders. Fenty–as–Jack Welch reared his head at a Monday press conference on the HIV crisis in this town: “We approach the school system, we approach the dumping in the Anacostia river, we approach the homicide rate in the same way: You hire the best people, you put together a strategy, and you demand they follow through on it.” Kundra’s move up, if nothing else, was an endorsement of Hizzoner’s eye for talent.
Hindsight being hindsight, Fenty should have seized his chance to talk up his guy on that stool at Nathans; it might turn out to have been his last chance.
Less than 24 hours later, FBI agents raided Kundra’s former executive suite at One Judiciary Square. They carted off documents and computer files that might contain evidence to support charges that one of his top deputies, Yusuf E. Acar, had engaged in multiple schemes to steal millions from the District government. Within a day, Kundra had taken leave from his White House job, and his name was mentioned in the same breath as such Obama vetting failures as Tom Daschle and Bill Richardson. A blogger dredged up a theft citation Kundra had picked up when he was 21.
Just like that, Kundra dragged Fenty and his striving administration into the morass of District corruption. Where Fenty could quite reasonably claim that the $48.1 million heist perpetrated by Harriette Walters & Co. over the course of more than a decade at the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue could not be pinned on him, the shenanigans at OCTO offer no such temporal buffer. Indications are that Fenty’s guy endorsed and oversaw OCTO hiring and procurement practices that enabled Acar and several unindicted OCTO co-conspirators.
And it’s not as though this rot came from the bottom ranks, far removed from the Fenty political types. Au contraire: Kundra had promoted Acar to a top security position even though he didn’t hold basic certifications in the field—one respected network security expert wrote that “there is absolutely nothing in Acar’s work experience or technical education that would make him qualified” for the job he held.
Kundra also pushed a streamlined $75 million-per-year scheme to award temporary OCTO staffing contracts, even though there was testimony in council hearings last year that such authority would indulge OCTO’s habits of favoring certain contractors. Among those treated well by OCTO is Advanced Integrated Technologies Corp., whose CEO, Sushil Bansal, was arrested last week in connection with the probe. AITC—which was awarded $13 million in city contracts since 2004, doubling its city business under Kundra’s watch—is alleged by authorities to have played a key role in misappropriating District funds.
In some of the scariest allegations, Acar was trusted with the electronic keys to monitor e-mails coming into and out of the Office of the Inspector General and other District agencies. LL has learned that Acar, in fact, was able to monitor e-mails coming in and out of the D.C. Auditor’s office, too—having identified a minor security breach in December that ended up prompting an interbranch squabble between auditor Deborah K. Nichols and Attorney General Peter J. Nickles.
If Fenty is looking for talking points on the OCTO disaster, he should focus on scam-detection efficiencies. For the sake of comparison, the Mother Harriette scandal was discovered nearly 20 years after its start—a chain of larceny preserved by a workplace culture described by investigators as “snitches get stitches.” It took an alert bank functionary to bring down the scheme.
The scam du jour, however, came down within months, thanks to…a snitch. Talk about turnaround times!
Doing the Best She Can
It’s no secret that council-mayor relations in this city’s government aren’t exactly hunky-dory. You got AWOL hearing witnesses, testy exchanges between councilmembers and mayoral appointees, and all manner of backstories.
Now that Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh has taken up oversight of the mayor’s office, the testiness is sure to continue.
In a big way, if last Friday is any indication. At an evening oversight hearing, Cheh faced off against Bridget Davis, the freshly appointed head of policy and legislative affairs. Davis, 30, replaced legislative vet JoAnn Ginsberg in January as the main mayoral liaison to the council.
Early on, Cheh quizzed Davis on how the mayor’s office reviews responses written by various agencies in response to questions submitted by the council. Davis dished out some boilerplate about how she aims to make sure the questions are answered quickly and in full.
Cheh wanted to know whether the mayor’s office ever excised information from agency heads’ responses, but Davis had no such answer to give. She stuck to her talking points—and stuck and stuck and stuck. Here’s her first response: “We’ve done the best we can to make sure that those answers are adequately answered if they can be and to make sure that they comply with the law.” And her second: “We do the best we can to make sure they’re fully answered and comply with the law.” And the third: “Like I said we do the best we can…” And the fourth: “I think I’ve already said that we do the best we can to answer the questions…” And the fifth: “Well, I’m going to answer it by saying that we do the best we can to make sure that the questions are adequately answered. I mean, you may not like the answer to your question…”
That last iteration really set Cheh off: “It’s not whether I like it—it’s whether it’s responsive or not!”
Cheh kept at it, telling Davis she could answer: a) yes; b) no; or c) I don’t know.
“I didn’t think that this was going to be a standardized test,” she replied, “but the answer to the question is that we do the best we can.”
“Yes or no or I don’t know!” Cheh exploded.
“Can I say: d)—I don’t know to all of the top three?” she said, adding, “All I’m saying is that we do the best we can to adequately answer the questions.”
At that, Cheh moved on to the missing-witness issue. The councilmember wanted to know if Davis had ever been aware of an instance where a requested executive official was ordered not to show at a council hearing.
Davis’ initial answer: “We just want to make sure that we’re sending the person who can fully answer all the questions.”
Said Cheh: “This is like Alice in Wonderland. Well, how is it then sometimes people just don’t turn up?”
“I don’t know,” Davis said. “I’ve never read Alice in Wonderland.”
Cheh tried again and got a series of best-we-cans. Later, Cheh attacked again, “I am putting questions to you that you are well able to answer and are evading!” she said.
“I’m doing the best I can…,” Davis proffered.
“No, you are not! You are certainly not doing the best you can!”
Actually, LL takes issue with Cheh’s assessment here: Davis was doing her best—at working within the longstanding Fenty-regime tradition of telling the council as little as, um, humanly possible. Nickles—who famously stifled housing director Leila Edmonds in a September hearing— did not attend this time, but general counsel Chip Richardson did. At the height of the action Friday, he stood and offered to assist Davis.
“No, thank you!” Cheh yelled.
Hard feelings? Maybe: On Monday, Davis showed up in Cheh’s offices with director Gabe Klein and other transportation department muck-a-mucks, hoping to sit in on a meeting. Cheh, LL is told, asked Davis to leave.
• DCision 2010 begins in earnest: We have our first official D.C. Council challenger.
That would be the Rev. Anthony Motley, the Congress Heights minister and civic activist of evolving party loyalties. Earlier this month, he sent a letter to a select group of friends, informing them that he has “decided to launch a campaign for an At-Large City Council seat in 2010 and inviting them to an April 4 meeting at the downtown law offices of A. Scott Bolden to discuss it.
In an interview, Motley, 59, says he simply “want[s] to explore the possibilities.”
“I’ve been asked by a number of people to consider doing it,” he says, name-checking his own pastor, Raymond C. Bell of First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church, as well as a mysterious “dear friend of mine in upper Ward 4.” Bolden, he says, is “a friend, and Scott had been encouraging to me.” (Bolden, of course, ran in this race four years ago as a Democrat and was trounced in the primary by Phil Mendelson.)
The big question is whether he has the backing of Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry. Motley is a confidant of Barry’s and is seen often with the mayor-for-life, including after Barry’s recent kidney transplant surgery. Motley says that surgery has precluded any real talks with his patron: “He’s been ill, so we haven’t really talked a lot about this, but hopefully once he gets better, gets on his feet, I’ll sit down and talk to him about it and hopefully he’ll be a supporter.”
Another tricky issue is his party affiliation: Motley’s an elected member of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, but his thus-far bare-bones Web site takes a page out of the Michael A. Brown playbook and bills the candidate as an “Independent-Democrat.” A Democratic run would pit him against Mendelson, who is expected to run for a fourth term, while any other affiliation would put him up against David A. Catania, should he choose to run for a fourth full term.
Motley says he isn’t yet sure about his affiliation: “I’m a registered Democrat. I believe in the Democratic principles, but we haven’t made a decision yet.”
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