Tech Support Has the OCTO scandal tarnished the Fenty-Obama relationship?

Darrow Montgomery

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

"Best" Western: Cheh and mayoral aide exchange fire over stock response. (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

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.

Political Potpourri

• 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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Our Readers Say

The D.C. Council has been out to lunch! I have lost all confidence in the Council of the District of Columbia and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. I will never cast a vote for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty or D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray. Both of these men are idiots!
DC has its Bush and Cheney in Fenty and Nickles.
Mayor Adrian Malik Fenty fooled everyone with his phony populism and everyone thought he was Mr. Nice Guy, man of the people. I knew he was a disaster, when in the first debate at UDC he was unable to name the three credit rating agencies! Let's get with it people, when are we as voters going to start electing politicians for their intellectual capabilities and not because they make us feel good? Good on all of you DC residents who voted for Mr. Clean, now the city will once again go down the drain under his leadership...I TOLD YOU SO!!!

Unfortunately, many D.C. residents don't vote and most are apathetic. There should be many comments made by D.C. residents on the corruption, mismanagement, waste, and fraud in Fenty's administration. District voters should question Fenty's trips to Dubai and China. D.C. residents don't care and they continue elected these same corrupt do nothing people back into office. Fenty will get re-elected!
I said a thousand times when Fenty was running for Mayor that he reminded me of a young girl who "just wants to get married" not knowing how difficult and work intensive a successful marriage would be. In the same vein he "just wanted to be Mayor" because golly, it looks so cool! He was not ready. He still isn't and we all have to live through his learning curve or lack thereof. Maybe now that he has a daughter he will rethink that whole HPV vaccine being a must for D.C. girls? That would be a start.
The India high tech lobby seems pretty entrenched in D.C. and beltway area as a whole. The India business culture is markedly different than the american business culture but people are afraid to address it and it now has become almost impossible control.

One of Mr. Kundra's accomplishments was leading the largest delegation of business people to India. That flies in the face of trying to create and keep jobs onshore here.

There were plenty of other people who were much more qualified to be the first CIO of the country. Think Mr. George Newstrom, former CIO under Mark Warner. Even if he declined there are many more heavy hitters out there.

The next thing to watch from the India high tech business community will be the Sam's Club offerings of electronic medical records software. A fiasco is in the brewing!

This all adds up to our tax dollars being stolen, squandered and sent overseas to employ people that should be employed in the good ole' US of A!

Wait until the people find out that all those stimulus health care dollars have wound up paying for software and support from India. AIG will look like child's play.
Kundra, Obama,Yusuf , Sushil ,Blah , Bleh......

Sounds like America .
OCTO's abuse goes back to Suzanne Peck and all of her CIO cronies. How quickly we forget that Kathy Patterson had DC Police on the hot seat for mis-spending or mis-placing $42million -- you remember Steve Gaffigan faked a heart-attack, latter slapped a female LT to avoid being held accountable and then MPDC substituted its latest puppet, Phillip Graham -- both BTW DC Police would later "FIRE" -- and then both terminated men would be given cushy contracting jobs with the DC government along with Winborne Costas, Peck's own son. The FBI needs to take this investigation BACK to 2002 and then hold people accountable for the billions of dollars of Homeland Security grant money wasted, misspent -- have the police department account for the nearly $500 million dollars in IT money allegedly spent or just given to contractors... DC needs a real IRS enema... Mayor Barry was using drugs but he loved DC... Fenty stole from old people, used drugs and is now legally stealing from EVERYONE.....
Thanks Lilypuck for your comments about Susan Peck. all the others that came after her did was to try and follow in her footsteps. Wake up DC it's not just Mr. Shine Head's Administration, but Anthony Williams crew had a lot to do with this as well.
Didn't Susan Pecks used to help finance election bids by A. Williams.

I wish I was one of those people that Susan used to have working at OCTO being paid $250/hour, 8hours a day and 5 days a week. It was reported to John Konstinin, and the snitch got black-balled.

What's susan up to these days anyway, now that she's back from Philly?
Lillypuck is right, LL. This OCTO scam didn't get shut down quickly. It's been going on for at least ten years, dating back to when Suzanne Peck decided that DBTS was the only company that OCTO would patronize. Google "District Dodges Spending Laws". The company started by an OCTO employee is still the number one vendor to OCTO.
On March 11, Mayor Adrian Fenty and Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey, held a major joint fundraiser in town. The Washington City Paper sent a reporter, but the paper didn't do any original reporting on the event; it just linked to the Post's account. The Post sent three reporters, but its coverage the next day was shockingly incomplete. The fundraiser was picketed and protested by over one hundred people from two different groups: labor unions that had protested the mayor's unqualified nominees to the Public Employees Relations Board just the week before; and Empower DC, which chanted, “One Term Mayor,” and charged that Fenty was selling out the city to the developers who were his major campaign contributors. This was the largest political protest over local city politics in decades, but there was no word of it in the newspaper or on the web site. The Post's three reporters were too good and professional not to take note of the protest and to write about it, which means that their stories were deliberately edited to remove any account of the protest.
Me and my friend have a pool on when Mayor Fenty will be indicted. He is almost begging for it. At the very least the attention should get the attention of higher authorities. The mayor's of Philly, Detroit, and Baltimore was indicted for less.
I am not surprised to see another scandal in DC. It is the corruption capital of the country. I have a high school diploma, can I apply for ghost employee contract manager. Like Yusuf Acar who did not have any technical bacground to hold that title, don't you thing it would be reasonable to ask!!
u must admit that Fenty is cute
Rob said that DC has its Bush and Cheney in Fenty and Nickles. Absolutely astute remark. Ditto!
We all know that homelessness has increased with this mayor, the low income are suffering more loss of truly affordable housing under this mayor and that he does as he damned well pleases.
We also know that this mayor is not working for the good off all DC residents, so why is there no move to recall his butt? Why is it impossible for people to seperate the issues from the behavior?
You had Marion Barry who did some reprehensible things, however more people were in their homes, more people had jobs as well as the youth were actually trained, then you have Fenty?
To me, this inability to recall this guy says loads about the policies of the District and its inhabitants, because solutions would be better served if he were gotten rid of then complaining about his nefarious actions or that he is caving to developers, ect.
He needs to be gone and until he is gone, until the people of this city actually put their foot down collectively and say enough is enough Adrian, see ya, you will see no change

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