Former D.C. officials decry tax office's culture of secrecy

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Photo - D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi (Examiner file photo)
D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi (Examiner file photo)
Local,DC,Liz Farmer

In the wake of a new scandal at the office of D.C.'s top financial officer, some former city officials question whether the agency's independence from the rest of city government fosters an atmosphere of secrecy.

"An independent agency is not accountable to the executive branch, and it may have limited accountability to the legislative," said attorney and former D.C. Councilman Bill Lightfoot. "With that limited accountability, a legislative branch cannot conduct meaningful oversight."

The spotlight on the city's Chief Financial Officer, Natwar Gandhi, has gotten hotter this month as October began with a hearing on his management decisions and was followed by a unanimous council mandate to publicize his internal audits. Last week, federal prosecutors exposed the third employee theft scandal of his 12-year tenure.

Lightfoot said the practice of not disclosing audits helped an already insulated agency avoid scrutiny.

"With no ... oversight, you have this rogue agency operating within the government, and that can create mischief," he said.

But others note Gandhi's independence isn't absolute. Mayor Vincent Gray has the power to fire him -- but he has to give just cause. Kathleen Clark, a former special counsel to the D.C. attorney general, added that the council had its chance to scrutinize Gandhi during his confirmation hearing this summer.

"I believe there were lots of reasons to be concerned before he was reappointed, and yet there seemed to be nothing to be gained politically [from the council holding up his confirmation]," she said.

The financial agency was made an independent entity as part of the control board era, during the city's financial crisis in the mid-1990s. By 2001, the control board had relinquished its power, giving sole control of D.C.'s purse strings to the CFO.

Clark said the council might not have all the tools it needs to adequately oversee Gandhi's office, but the legislative branch could be doing more. Neither the city council nor the Office of the Chief Financial Officer has made a move after a tax office employee was charged in federal court last week, accused of helping to steal more than $300,000 from city taxpayers. The largest theft in city history -- $48 million -- was also by a tax office employee under Gandhi who was able to game the system.

Lightfoot said the agency's lack of transparency keeps council members in the dark.

"For the council to ask the right questions, they have to have information about the operations," he said. "Without disclosure, the agency can confuse and hide the record."

lfarmer@washingtonexaminer.com

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