Harry Sewell lived well in the summer of 2008. He’d already spent $5,653.70 earlier that year on a four night stay in a La Jolla, Calif., resort, but his trips to Miami rivaled even that. In one memorable trip, Sewell, the executive director of the D.C. Housing Finance Agency, spent $1,774.23 at world-famous sushi restaurant Nobu, before spending $1,310.00 at the Opium Garden, a now-shuttered Miami Beach nightclub. The day after he got back to Washington, he enjoyed a $171.25 meal at the Capital Grille.
Best of all, he didn’t pay for any of it himself. Instead, he charged the trip—his meals, his hotel, even a fee for having extra bags—to his agency. His trip proved to be far from the first or the last time Sewell used the card on extravagant expenses.
Between December 2006 and April 2013, he charged $136,333.11 to his DCHFA credit card. Notes like “Personal,” “Employee Receivable,” or “Sewell,” are written next to $14,770.96 of the charges, suggesting that Sewell paid them back. Both Sewell and a DCHFA spokesman declined to say whether that meant the money had been reimbursed, when it was paid back, or why Sewell used the agency’s card for personal expenses at all.
LL’s readers could be experiencing deja vu. LL first wrote about Sewell’s cozy deal with DCHFA back in July, when a Freedom of Information Act request for his agency credit card records revealed $47,982.40 in expenses between 2011 and 2013. Now, after months of waiting and the unexplained “disappearance” of LL’s first request for more expense sheets, LL has Sewell’s statements from December 2006, when he first joined DCHFA, through 2010. Some of them make his more recent purchases look austere.
Sewell used DCHFA’s account so much that the statements read like the personal card of an average wealthy professional, if perhaps one living a bit beyond his means, not a government purchasing card. Sewell paid $634.14 for a Sirius radio subscription, $600 in one Ticketmaster purchase, $2,275 for Wizards tickets, and $89.50 at Takoma wine store Cork ’n’ Bottle.
Sewell also used the card to take care of the people close to him, covering his son’s baggage fees on flights and paying $145 for medical care at a women’s health clinic in Bethesda. The statements also reveal a $409.50 plane ticket from D.C. to Phoenix for a woman named Mildred Sewell; Harry Sewell declined to tell LL who she is.
Sewell wouldn’t talk to LL or justify specific charges. Instead, he issued a statement through a spokesman about a new policy announced at DCHFA at the end of July. “The use of the credit card to pay for any non-Agency business is not permitted by any holder/user of the credit card,” Sewell says. The statement doesn’t explain why it took him six and a half years after his first “personal” expense to come up with that idea, nor why he’s still in a position to set the rules for the use of agency cards after racking up so many charges.
Sewell’s delay in implementing the most basic financial practice baffles LL—especially since the ban on using agency cards for personal expenses has always been DCHFA policy, Sewell’s actions notwithstanding. According to the contract he signed with the agency in 2006, also obtained through a FOIA request, DCHFA would reimburse Sewell for his expenses after he submitted vouchers. The contract makes no mention of a government-issued credit card or the personal expenses it could cover.
LL’s not the only one who’s puzzled, either: Sewell’s spending has also caught the eye of DCHFA’s board. The board planned to consider Sewell’s fate at a meeting last week, but the government shutdown intervened (Because DCHFA operates independently from the D.C. government, it shut down even though the rest of D.C. kept running while awaiting an appropriation from Congress). Still, board attorney Thorn Pozen promises a decision “in the very near future.”
If the board chooses to fire Sewell, it will be an abrupt exit—his 2012 contract extended his term through the middle of 2015. “They’re evaluating all their options at this point,” Pozen says.
DCHFA uses the District’s debt capacity to borrow money, which it lends out to developers. The developers get favorable rates in exchange for creating affordable housing in their new buildings. DCHFA then uses the interest the developers pay to fund its operations. That means Sewell’s nights out on the town aren’t funded by taxpayer dollars, but they did come at the expense of affordable housing for D.C. residents, which seems at least as bad to LL.
Sewell’s unrestricted access to the DCHFA card turned into a boon for the D.C. auto industry. He spent $1,000 on a car payment to a Germantown, Md., dealer in European cars, and $1,185.81 at a tire store. Sewell covered more mundane auto expenses with the card, too, paying $1,252.52 at D.C. area gas stations between 2006 and 2010.
The largest recipients of Sewell’s patronage, though, have been businesses in the Miami area, which Sewell visited more often than ’90s-era Will Smith. In January 2010, Sewell spent $6,824.76 of DCHFA’s money on a four-day visit to Miami, including $500 at a men’s fashion store. (That expense, at least, is marked “personal” on the statements.)
Sewell didn’t just spend money in Florida. In June 2010, after visiting a Chicago branch of upmarket shoemaker Allen Edmonds for a pair of shoes ($307.60), Sewell visited a steakhouse. Sewell ran up a lavish tab—$949.99—but wasn’t so generous with his tip, putting down just $50.
The credit card records explain a lot, but they don’t reveal why Sewell tipped a mere 5 percent on a nearly thousand dollar bill. With someone else picking up the tab, after all, he could afford to be generous.
The federal government had been closed for two days, but Mayor Vince Gray was in good spirits last week as he cut the ribbon on a new police building. “I’m from the District government and we’re open for business!” Gray said.
Well, sort of. While the District’s entire 33,000-person workforce has stayed on the job during the shutdown, thanks to Gray’s decision to use the city’s $144 million contingency fund to pay for operations, that money will eventually run out if Congress doesn’t pass an appropriation for the District. The fund is expected to last at least through next week, when the city’s $100 million biweekly payroll will use up whatever’s left.
Gray, meanwhile, seems to have discarded the idea of keeping the entire government open after the fund runs out, writing to President Barack Obama and congressional leaders in a letter Tuesday that “time is running out.” His official shutdown plan declared the whole government essential, but the White House hasn’t approved that yet.
To put off the day the money runs out, the District has adopted a strategy familiar to anyone who’s find themselves without enough money to cover every bill: putting off the least urgent bills for another day. While the District will still meet agreements that could cost even more money if payments are missed, less demanding creditors, including some city contracts and payments from settled lawsuits, won’t be paid until the shutdown is over. Nor will tax refunds.
Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro describes the bill triage going on at District agencies. “Does this need to paid today?” he says. “OK, yes, deal with it? Nope? OK, put it in that pile.”
The tightened purse is affecting the D.C. Council, too. In a Tuesday memo to Council staffers obtained by LL, Council secretary Nyasha Smith asks them to restrict themselves to “expenditures of the most extreme importance.”
Illustration by Carey Jordan
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