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Barras: Killing the messenger

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

Before Vincent C. Gray's corrupt 2010 campaign, there was Lottery I. That 2008, multimillion-dollar procurement was marked by unethical behaviors and political interference. Now, a federal grand jury is probing whether bribery played a role.

Meanwhile, the fight continues between the District and Eric Payne, the senior procurement manager for Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, who handled Lottery 1. Payne, one of the few persons who acted with integrity, resisted efforts to alter the results of a competitive process, which the contracts appeal board ruled had been fair and proper.

Why the skirmish? Doesn't the fight send the wrong message about the rewards of following District law? Doesn't it act as disincentive to report incidents of waste, fraud or abuse?

Lottery 1 certainly was slathered with all three.

Some council members, including then-Chairman Gray, objected to the winning group--W2I, a joint venture that included W2Tech and Greek gaming corporation Intralot. Principals with W2Tech were friendly with then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. The losing team bidder P. Leonard Manning had been a generous campaign contributor. Gray refused to schedule a vote on the contract. Gandhi asked Fenty to pull it from consideration; he wouldn't. Payne said he was pressed to rebid it.

"He challenged them to give him a credible, legally sufficient reason to walk away from Lottery I. They simply could not," said A. Scott Bolden, a top-ranked District-based lawyer who represented W2Tech. "They were making decisions based on personalities and petty politics, which bordered on the nonsensical."

Eventually Payne went to the city's inspector general and the CFO's Office of Integrity and Oversight. He became a whistleblower and should have been protected against retaliation. But Gandhi demoted and, later, fired him.

Payne filed a "wrongful termination" lawsuit in 2009. This week, he filed a new complaint, after Gandhi disparaged him earlier this month in a Washington Post article and a widely distributed email. The District has engaged in a "pattern of harassment and intimidation," including attempts to depose his wife (who was eight months into a high-risk pregnancy), Payne told me.

Gandhi declined to comment on advice of counsel.

Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan said Payne's termination wasn't "as a whistleblower" and is "fully defensible." He said he's obligated to fight "unwarranted claims against our precious tax dollars."

The council eventually rejected W2I. (A 2011 IG report found Gandhi violated procurement rules during Lottery 2.)

As allegations concerning Gray's 2010 campaign are proving true, so are those surrounding Lottery 1.

The media recently reported Councilman Jim Graham told principals of W2I he would vote to approve their contract, if they turned down a Metro development deal. Graham was on Metro's board; it has launched an investigation. While Gray delayed the council vote, he was meeting with political allies who wanted the contract rebid.

"How do you ever hope to clean the city up, if you destroy civil servants who try to do the right thing?" asked Payne.

Good question. Equally important, who will stand to protect taxpayers from future fraud?

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

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