A little more than a 100 days ago, then-not-quite-yet-Mayor Vince Gray introduced the District to Rochelle Webb, his pick to lead the troubled Department of Employment Services. Last Friday, Gray had her unceremoniously shitcanned without a peep as to why.
It was a sharp and unexplained about-face for a pick that’s important to the mayor. When he first named Webb in December, Gray was two weeks away from inauguration after running a campaign with a central theme of getting District residents back to work. On the campaign trail and at town hall forums after the election, Gray would cite individual wards’ high unemployment rates from memory and point to DOES’ lack of viable job-training programs as part of the problem.
“I’ve tasked Dr. Webb with a dramatic transformation of DOES in order to better equip our residents with the tools they need to get off the unemployment rolls and into the job market,” Gray said in introducing Webb, who had been the administrator of the Employment Administration within the Arizona Department of Economic Security. Webb was recruited through a search firm, and despite the ridiculous rumor LL heard multiple times this week, is not a cousin of Gray’s campaign and transition chairwoman Lorraine Green.
Webb was also supposed to dramatically transform the long-troubled summer jobs program, which had a history under Mayor Adrian Fenty of busting its budget and doling out ill-defined jobs, sometimes to non-residents.
But Webb won’t be doing any more of anything at DOES. On Friday afternoon last week, Gray’s interim chief of staff Paul Quander, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Victor Hoskins, and an H.R. rep met with Webb and asked her to resign, according to Webb.
“I said, ‘No thank you, I have no reason to resign,’” says Webb. She adds that Quander immediately told her she was fired. (She’s set to leave city government with four weeks’ severance pay, which comes to about $14,000.)
Exactly why Webb was fired isn’t clear. Gray hasn’t given a reason, and his communications shop released a statement Friday saying only that the mayor had “withdrawn” her nomination to lead DOES.
The dominant view at the Wilson Building is that Webb was a tone-deaf bureaucrat who was too eager to take advantage of District taxpayers and whose missteps kept adding up. LL first broke the news that Webb had a DOES employee chauffeur her to and from the W Hotel, where her room was paid for by taxpayers. And her son, Brandon Webb, was one of a handful of children of top Gray aides who were hired into District government and promptly resigned once news broke of their employment.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, according to one upper level Wilson Building source, was Webb’s approval of moving expenses for an aide who joined her from Arizona—expenses that included things like towels and furniture.
But there are signs that Webb might not be entirely responsible for the clumsy political maneuvers that have come to define her.
Exhibit A, the W Hotel. Receipts show that Webb’s rate at the W was a reasonable $181 a night, and she didn’t bill for room service, pay-per-view movies, or any other expenses. Her total bill for 29 nights was $5,249. Webb says she never requested to stay at the W, and her arraignments were handled by Lisa Mallory, DOES’ operating officer, who is now serving as Webb’s replacement. Malloy could not be reached for comment by deadline.
And it’s worth noting that Webb wasn’t the only new agency boss being put up in pricey temporary housing for the first month on the job. The new director of the Department of Health Care Finance, Wayne Turnage, testified recently that the District paid more than $4,000 for him to stay one month in a furnished apartment when he first began work.
Exhibit B, the chauffeur. As LL noted when the story first broke, former DOES director Joe Walsh says he didn’t have a driver when he ran the agency, but past DOES directors have had chauffeurs, and it wasn’t an unheard-of practice for the boss to be driven around town. Webb probably should have been wise to the fact that getting chauffeured in a city ride isn’t the smartest move, especially once Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown’s Lincoln Navigator(s) became front-page news. But Webb says she again relied on Mallory’s guidance about the driver.
Exhibit C, her son’s employment. Webb said she asked former interim human resources director Judy Banks about a job for her son. Banks told Webb to send her Brandon’s résumé.
“The next day she contacted me back saying she had a position for Brandon, and how soon could he get here?” says Webb.
Banks said under oath at a council hearing last week that that conversation never happened, and Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe was the one who requested Brandon Webb be hired.
Either way, Webb’s probably guilty of poor political judgment in trying to get her son a job. But it’s hard to fault her too much, when it looks like it was open season in the Gray administration to get jobs for the politically connected. At the hearing last week Banks testified that Gray’s former chief of staff, Gerri Mason Hall, had her son hired and set his salary. Hall has been fired, but there’s no indication that Gray’s spokeswoman, Linda Wharton-Boyd, has been punished because her son was hired into city government (he later resigned, too).
Exhibit D, the aide’s moving expense. Webb says that when she was hired, the mayor gave her permission to bring in her own team. Webb says she approved the salaries of some aides from Arizona, which included money for moving expenses.
One of Webb’s aides submitted $3,800 worth of receipts, which include about $1,000 worth of purchases that raise eyebrows. But Webb says she never approved or even saw those receipts. And a source close to Webb says that DOES’ H.R. staffer’s advice was, “You never know what they are going to approve, so just submit everything.” An email obtained by LL shows that a DOES H.R. staffer went the extra mile to make sure that the aide included a $105 bill from Banana Republic in the relocation expenses.
The receipts include a $470 bill at Bed Bath and Beyond for things like sheets and towels, a $40 bill at Ikea that includes a $10 table lamp, $150 for wireless Internet equipment from Best Buy, and $66 for groceries at Whole Foods. The receipts don’t include anything particularly outrageous like a TV, as had been rumored at the Wilson Building.
A DOES H.R. staffer submitted the aide’s moving expenses to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, which turned down the expenses, citing city rules that only allow relocation expenses for employees who are filling hard-to-find positions. There’s no indication in the forms submitted that Webb signed off on them or even saw them before they went to the CFO.
“That did not come to me, I did not see it,” says Webb.
H.R. staff at DOES declined to comment. If that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, it seems like an exceedingly light straw to bring down an agency head.
Which means it’s probably time to mention that Webb also had quickly acquired a reputation for outspokenness, butted heads with at least two councilmembers, and according to another councilmember, wasn’t making friends with either the business or labor community.
Shortly after Webb took over DOES, she was chastised at a hearing by Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry for not having any men on her senior leadership team, which a person more cynical than LL might understand as Barry being upset that one of his male friends wasn’t in Webb’s senior leadership team.
And Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham says he was going to vote against Webb’s confirmation for several reasons, including her opposition to using District funding to pay for summer jobs for undocumented Latino youth. Webb had “a kind of Arizona point of view” in immigration matters, Graham says, adding that he’s glad Gray isn’t pressing forward with Webb.
“It’s best to be done with this and move on,” says Graham.
For her part, Webb says she’s never been given a reason, and her once frequent phone calls from Gray—including one where she says he told her not to worry about Graham—stopped two weeks ago. Her best guess? The administration was concerned about what she was going to say during a council hearing on Gray’s hiring practices.
“I told them I could not lie under oath,” Webb says of a meeting she had with Gray’s top staff the Monday before she was fired.
LL’s not so sure about Webb’s theory. She’s still set to testify Thursday, and she’s now got a lot less motivation to be a team player. Gray aides say it would be inappropriate to comment on Webb’s tale while the council is still investigating.
And as for thoughts on the Gray administration, Webb says they’ve lost their way.
“They’re creating so many cover stories that they’re lost in their own stories,” says Webb.
KWAME THE VERY BAD RECORD KEEPER
The Office of Campaign Finance released a long-awaited audit of Kwame Brown’s finances this week, and boy, was it a doozy. He and his brother Che Brown can’t properly account for the previously unreported $240,000 that flowed directly from Brown’s 2008 uncontested re-election campaign account to his brother’s sales coaching firm, according to OCF. Brown’s campaign also failed to initially report 210 contributions totaling $103,000 and 53 expenditures totaling $169,000.
It seems it’s not just campaign finance records that are difficult for Brown to locate. At the beginning of the year, The Washington Post ran a profile of Brown that mentioned he’d ordered his old office to be connected to his chairman’s office at a cost of $13,000. LL filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all records related to that renovation and got more than 120 documents back. The results are revealing, but in the bad kind of way.
First and foremost, there were exactly zero records related to renovations mentioned in the Post article. There was only one requisition order for $1,685 to move furniture in Brown’s office and the “removal of built-in desktop,” but that order was dated March 17.
The rest of the FOIA response consisted mostly of multiple copies of the daily news round-up LL sends out each morning by email that mentioned the Post article and other random emails that have nothing to do with Brown’s office renovations.
LL’s favorite was an email from Tom Downs, Gray’s transition director on transportation issues, to other transition members. The subject line reads “Transition data” and with an attachment labeled “Email attachments.” The email’s body: “A little late, but here you are. Thanks for joining this effort. Tom Downs.”
The message then goes on to describe how Downs was personally renovating Brown’s office using 18th century tools and techniques he learned at Amish camp. (Does LL need to add that he’s just kidding?)
LL reached out to Brown’s office for an explanation, but his spokeswoman says the records LL got in his FOIA were the only records Brown’s office had of the renovations. As we know now, thanks to OCF, that’s typical.
Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 650-6951, 24 hours a day.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery