In case you haven’t noticed, it’s been a busy, productive spring for investigators in the District.
Attorney General Irv Nathan dispelled any notion he’s a softie with a blistering civil suit accusing Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. of redirecting city money earmarked for kids and using it to buy an Audi. The Office of Campaign Finance exceeded everyone’s low expectations with a well-documented audit of D.C. Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown’s inability to document the $170,000 his 2008 re-election campaign paid his brother. And the U.S. Attorney’s Office showed it actually does pay attention to District affairs, turning to a grand jury to help investigate alleged misconduct by Mayor Vince Gray’s mayoral campaign and launching its own Thomas probe.
But for the Office of the Inspector General, which has an annual budget of more than $15 million and is supposed to be the District’s main watchdog, it’s been a typically quiet past few months. Inspector General Charles Willoughby really only made news by deciding not to have his office investigate the mayor’s campaign, on the pretext that Willoughby once had a brief meeting with Gray’s chief accuser, Sulaimon Brown, to talk about jobs.
And the two most interesting reports out of the office lately have been most notable for being old: Earlier this month, OIG released the results of an investigation into how city paramedics handled a 911 call. Former Fire Chief Dennis Rubin asked the OIG to investigate on Dec. 16, 2008. In April, OIG released a report on the firetrucks former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s friends had tried to donate to Sosua, a resort town in the Dominican Republic. Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Phil Mendelson requested the investigation two years earlier.
“It took forever to do the damn Sosua firetruck report,” says Mendelson, who notes that the major players in that report no longer work in District government. “The biggest problem with the audits is that they take too long…their usefulness has got to be in real time.”
Another councilmember, wishing to speak anonymously, echoed Mendelson’s concerns about the speed with which the OIG operates and suggested Willoughby might not be the best fit for the job.
“In terms of priorities and moving things in a timely manner, I’ve been disappointed,” says the councilmember. “I think we probably need a change there…We could get better value for our money, for sure.”
IGs are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council to six-year terms. Willoughby, who makes $159,855 a year, was appointed by then-Mayor Anthony Williams in 2005 to finish out a previous term and reconfirmed in 2008, meaning the job is likely his until at least 2014.
That is, unless the council decides to do with Willoughby what they did to the last guy: hound the living hell out of him until he quits.
Willoughby’s predecessor was Charles Maddox, who resigned in 2003 after a turbulent tenure that included a no-confidence vote from the council, legislation designed to disqualify Maddox for the IG position, and a failed council lawsuit against Williams seeking to enact that legislation.
Depending on who you ask, the council’s jihad against Maddox was either entirely justified or political hackery at its worst.
The council’s effort to oust Maddox was spearheaded by At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange, who was in his first Wilson Building go-round representing Ward 5. Orange accused Maddox of skirting the District’s residency requirement, slow-walking an investigation of Williams’ aides, and being generally ineffective.
“Vince Orange had a thing for Charlie Maddox, and I don’t know what it was, but he just didn’t like Charlie Maddox,” says one councilmember who was on the council then and still is. “He kept trying to find ways of getting rid of Maddox.”
Looking back, Orange says Maddox needed to go because he “clearly was operating beyond his scope. He went after folks that at the end of the day, it didn’t bear any fruit.” Orange cited Maddox’s investigation into the Office of Campaign Finance and the Board of Elections and Ethics as examples.
“It seems to me that he was always after a big fish and the big fish never materialized—as opposed to really working to find government waste, fraud, and abuse,” says Orange, adding that he sees no problem with the current IG, other than Willoughby’s decision not to investigate the Sulaimon Brown mess.
Maddox, not surprisingly, sees things a bit differently. He suggests the council went gunning for him for political reasons—specifically, because he was looking into whether OCF was properly investigating certain councilmembers’ campaign finances.
“We received information from reliable sources within the agency that that was not happening,” says Maddox. “Obviously [the council] didn’t like the fact that we were poking around in their own backyard.”
Despite surviving the council’s efforts, Maddox eventually quit on his own. His departure, says Fraternal Order of Police union boss Kris Baumann, who has long been one of Willoughby’s most vocal critics, sent a clear message that future IGs have to play nice in order to keep their job.
“The effect was that no one with any self respect or any interest in handling real investigations will ever take this job again,” says Baumann, who adds with his typical flourish: “The OIG should be a gravel-eating ogre—everyone should be terrified of him—not a glad-handing half-wit sycophant.”
Willoughby declined to be interviewed for this article. But his chief of staff Roger Burke says allegations of Willoughby or the OIG being passive or incompetent are simply not true.
“We go after everything we find,” says Burke.
(In written testimony earlier this year, Willoughby touted his office’s work, noting some of his departments find $8 in waste for every $1 spent.)
Burke added that several former federal prosecutors, including Willoughby, work at OIG: “We’re not shrinking violets, we’re not sitting on our hands.”
Maybe. Most investigative work goes on behind closed doors, so it’s difficult to make a clear assessment of how aggressive or effective the OIG has been on any one investigation.
But it’s clear to LL that Willoughby hasn’t had much, if any, impact on recent public discourse regarding the behavior of D.C.’s elected officials. On the big issue of the day, OIG has nothing to say.
That’s not to say that the OIG hasn’t done good work; Willoughby’s investigations into the District’s role in the death of former New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum and the Banita Jacks child-murder case have drawn praise. But there hasn’t been one OIG investigation in more than a year that’s gotten much news coverage, resulted in any significant legislative action, or generally made any real impression. Instead, typical news releases coming out of the office involve minor offenses like some schlub getting busted for stealing a few thousand dollars’ worth of employment checks.
The lack of an aggressive OIG has led the council to try and pick up the slack by holding its own investigations. Those clumsy episodes have produced plenty in the way of spectacle (one word: sunglasses) but little in the way of results.
That’s a shame. Because if recent weeks have taught us anything, it’s that there are plenty of big fish to be fried out there. Too bad OIG doesn’t seem hungry.
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery