Barras: Is this the finale for D.C. CFO Natwar Gandhi?

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

Everyone's salivating over D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi's expected announcement Tuesday of a $400 million surplus for the 2012 fiscal year. The money is the result of higher than projected tax revenues and reduced agency spending.

Ed Lazere, director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, has said saving the entire amount would be "a wasted opportunity to make investments that will improve the quality of life in the District." Mayor Vincent C. Gray appears to agree: He said he would tuck away only two-thirds of the money.

"The only place where I would willingly spend money would be on police and fire," Councilman Jack Evans, head of the Finance and Revenue Committee, told me last week. He said police and firefighters have not received raises in years. Retroactive increases could total $75 million.

Truth be told, the size and source of the surplus are troubling. They reveal much about CFO management failures, including inaccurate budget and revenue projections.

For some folks, the surplus is less fascinating than news that this year's audit report may be Gandhi's last. "He's not going to be around after a couple of months," a highly placed government source told me, echoing comments from other John A. Wilson Building insiders.

CFO spokesman David Umansky coyly repeated what he said is Gandhi's response to such questions: "I take one day at a time."

Gandhi's reputation was bruised severely over the past year: Media reports indicated he cost the District $48 million in tax revenues when he adjusted the assessed value of 500 commercial properties. The inspector general accused him of acting improperly during the 2008 and 2009 lottery contracting process. Two former ethics chiefs asserted he withheld critical audits from the public. Those claims prompted the federal Securities and Exchange Commission to open a review of the CFO's operation. The council passed emergency legislation mandating Gandhi post online all internal audits.

The city's "clean" financial reputation and the $400 million surplus -- the envy of many state governments -- may provide Gandhi a moment's reprieve. Walking away now could be his best chance to leave on a high note.

Who would take his place? "We would need a real tiger," said one government official.

District officials should conduct a national -- maybe even international -- hunt for the best and brightest financial manager. I have grown enamored, albeit from afar, of India's current comptroller and auditor general, Vinod Rai.

He has shaken things up over there. He once reminded officials that "auditors are not cheerleaders," a fact too often lost on those in the District charged with ensuring a good and efficient government.

Rai is no ordinary bean counter. His work has launched an anti-corruption movement and sent a government minister, senior managers and business leaders to jail. According to published reports, he has extended his reach beyond financial audits to also assess the efficacy of government policies -- a role many had hoped Gandhi would assume.

District officials should go get Rai. Luckily, his term in India expires in May.

H-IB visa, anyone?

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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