D.C. CFO defends against accusations

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

The District’s embattled top financial officer answered questions from lawmakers Wednesday about accusations that mismanagement within his agency had cost taxpayers millions of dollars in tax assessments.

Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, who was reappointed this summer to another five-year term, told a D.C. Council committee that media reports stating his office failed to collect more than $40 million in property tax revenue this year were “absolutely false.”

“The assertion that potential tax revenue from settled cases is somehow lost is inherently incorrect,” he said, adding that such a notion “reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of the appeals process.”

Gandhi testified late into the evening after the committee took a five-hour break for the Washington Nationals playoff game. The interest in Gandhi is so intense that all but one of the council members showed up to ask questions and non-committee member at-large Councilman Vincent Orange also took a round.

Gandhi has been in the spotlight since August when the Washington Post reported his office lowered commercial property values by $2.6 billion through settlements. The Post said the changes had cost the District $48 million in revenue and are now the subject of a federal investigation. 

And turning up the heat last week, the head of the D.C. government office tasked with independently reviewing and auditing Gandhi’s agency resigned in protest, saying he and the CFO had a different vision.

In his testimony before the committee Wednesday morning, William DiVello, former executive director of the Office of Integrity and Oversight, outlined his growing frustration with what he saw as a lack of transparency during his two-year post. One audit, which he said was held up by Gandhi’s office, pointed out deficiencies in the computer system the tax office uses for assessments.

“There’s no rhyme or reason to it — some were approved and some weren’t,” DiVello said. “When this kind of stuff happens, it sends a chilling effect on the whole auditing process.”

He added that he’d tried on three separate occasions to meet with Gandhi about his concerns that his audits weren’t being released, at least within the agency, but the CFO had not been receptive. DiVello said he decided to resign after the third meeting fell through. 

Gandhi said he met with DiVello during every weekly senior staff meeting, where DiVello had the opportunity to say how he thought his audits should be enforced.

Gandhi also expressed his surprise and sadness that DiVello had resigned abruptly without calling him in advance.

“I’d still sit down with him, have an exit interview and say, ‘Look, Bill, what happened here?’ ” he said.

He also defended his practice of only making some audits public and keeping others for internal use. 

The CFO, now in his 12th year in the post, has previously faced critical questions regarding his oversight. Most notably, the largest embezzlement in city history happened under his watch when a former employee stole nearly $50 million over 17 years. But this year has been seen traditional allies turning against him.

One of those, Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry, said the future could be murky for Gandhi. Barry told The Washington Examiner, he thought the council should use its power to force changes within the office.

“I think he’s completely abdicated his responsibilities,” Barry said of Gandhi.  

lfarmer@washingtonexaminer.com

 
Gandhi's defense
The D.C. chie financial officer provided these figures as evidence that the lowered property tax assessments in 2012 weren't out of the ordinary:
  Total changes to assessed value Total revenues Total assessed value
2012 -$2.95b $1.84b $241.0b
2011 -$1.26b $1.60b $230.4b
2010 -$3.05b $1.74b $242.8b
2009 -$3.07b $1.71b $243.5b

 

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Author:

Liz Farmer

Examiner Staff Writer
The Washington Examiner