D.C. support for city CFO dips -- despite huge surplus

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Local,DC,Alan Blinder,D.C. Council

The District's chief financial officer is poised to announce a nine-figure budget surplus Tuesday, but when Natwar Gandhi steps to the microphone, he'll do so after another year of political land mines that have chipped away at his support.

For Gandhi, whose spokesman declined to comment, 2012 was hardly a banner year.

Federal authorities opened a probe into the $38 million lottery contract procurement, a process Gandhi's office managed. The Securities and Exchange Commission began asking questions. Reports abounded of misdeeds by employees ranging from falsifying job qualifications to fraudulently using disabled parking permits.

The year's bright spots were another span of financial boon, praise from Wall Street and an 11-1 D.C. Council vote to give him another term.

For Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans, who chairs the council's finance panel, that performance was sufficient.

"He had a tough year, but not anything of his own making," Evans said. "He's in good stead."

Others said, though, they wanted more from the man who is charged with keeping the District away from a past era of repeated fiscal meltdowns.

"He really did bring us from one place to another. That's fine," said at-large Councilman David Grosso, who wasn't a legislator when the council considered Gandhi's reappointment. "But now it's time for us to take the next step. If he wants to be a part of that, then he has to be able to step up and do all the things I think it takes, like innovative thinking and transparency."

And Gandhi's challenges aren't fading soon.

The potential for massive federal budget cuts remains, and Gandhi is already under renewed fire for what critics contend are especially conservative revenue forecasts.

"I continue to have confidence in him, but there certainly does appear to be a pattern of understating the revenues," said Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham. "It's one thing to understate revenues, but it's quite another to encourage us to make cuts that really hurt people who are trying to make ends meet."

At-large Councilman David Catania, a longtime Gandhi foe, said he thought the CFO deliberately underestimated the city's revenues.

"He intentionally suppresses revenue projections so these large surpluses can come about," said Catania, who accused some agencies of routinely overspending because they've become so accustomed to year-end budget surpluses.

Grosso said he thought Gandhi's performance could improve if lawmakers would take a more aggressive approach to overseeing the CFO's Office.

"If you have a good council in place that's not distracted with all of their problems, you can have that give-and-take," Grosso said. "For the past several years, most folks up here have just been trying to keep their heads above water."

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com

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