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Barras: What's a firing offense in the District?

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

"The [chief financial officer's] job is to run the finances of the city. In that regard, [Natwar] Gandhi has done a good job," D.C. Councilman Jack Evans told me, echoing the same spin offered by District insiders including Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

It's true that Gandhi, aided by elected officials, has produced "balanced budgets" and so-called clean opinions from financial auditors. Is that enough?

There is growing concern about him among numbers of political and business leaders -- some of whom endorsed Gandhi's reappointment this spring, according to council and other government sources. "A lot of information has come out after that vote that has helped undermine confidence in him," said one source.

Earlier this week, former at-large Councilman Bill Lightfoot called, once again, for Gandhi's removal. "He has mismanaged the power he has," Lightfoot told me.

"I don't have that crazy feeling that Nat Gandhi should resigned," said Evans, head of the council's finance committee, which oversees the CFO's massive $127 million independent agency.

Under the federal law that created the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, Gandhi can be terminated for cause, but only by the mayor. The legislature could pass a resolution urging his firing, however.

In 2000, the council, led by Evans, took such action against then-CFO Valerie Holt. Writing in another venue, I had repeatedly urged her firing; she was protected by the control board's chairperson, Alice Rivlin. The council called for Holt's removal only after she failed to meet the extended deadline for completing the city's end-of-the-year audit.

Gandhi's shop has become almost as mismanaged and as controversial as Holt's was: The CFO stopped collecting a council-mandated tax; staff reduced the assessed values of hundreds of commercial properties; the tax office failed to track transactions, increasing the possibility of theft. Critical internal audits were kept secret; and director of the lottery office was accused of sexual harassment and abusing his employees. All of that is in addition to unprecedented embezzlement by CFO employees.

"It seems like part of the old culture has returned," said another source.

Evans and other Gandhi supporters admit those issues are important. They don't seem to correlate them to the city's finances, however.

This is an indisputable reality: In government, all roads lead to money. Mismanaging any function means a loss of revenues.

Gandhi's penchant to sanitize critical audits or bury them may seem benign. But when the federal Securities and Exchange Commission learned of his habits, it launched a review of his handling of bond sales, which could result in a huge fine and higher interest rates -- maybe both.

Those property assessment reductions may have denied the city more than $48 million in revenues. And the CFO's decision in 2008 to play politics with elected officials, including Jim Graham, during the lottery contracting process may have cost the city $5 million.

When the CFO messes up, taxpayers suffer. Any evaluation of Gandhi can't be limited to balanced budgets, which an average bean counter could prepare.

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

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