Jonetta Rose Barras: D.C. needs a new finance chief

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

There are reasons for Mayor Vincent C. Gray not to reappoint Natwar Gandhi as the city's chief financial officer when his term expires next month. The grounds for goodbye are too numerous to fully describe here.

But, start with the fact that more than a few agencies, whose finance officers report to Gandhi, routinely overspend their appropriated budgets -- a violation of the federal Antideficiency Act. The D.C. Public Schools, for example, has overspent its 2012 budget by $25 million. Some officials have asserted certain categories were underbudgeted. Which takes us back to Gandhi.

The loss or theft of the public's money under his stewardship is legendary: $50 million was stolen by a mid-level manager in the Office of Tax and Revenue. Contrary to some media reports, Gandhi was the director of OTR when that embezzlement scheme began. He was the chief financial officer when it was finally uncovered as a result of an observant bank employee -- not Gandhi or his team.

One of Gandhi's proteges -- Saamir Kaiser -- made off with nearly $250,000; another OTR worker -- Mary Ayers-Zanders -- stole $414,000. Fake lottery tickets may have cost the city $85,000 and an investment company allegedly lost $21 million of the public's money.

Let's not forget that $100 million in recordation taxes may have gone uncollected because Gandhi decided -- on his own -- to ignore a D.C. Council approved law. Recently, the city's inspector general accused the chief financial officer of violating local procurement laws and overstepping his authority during the solicitation and approval of the current lottery contract, costing taxpayers more money.

In many states, such infractions or mismanagement would result in the finance chief's termination. But the District government is wholly dysfunctional. Consequently, instead of preparing to end its relationship with Gandhi -- say sayonara; hit the road doc -- Wilson Building sources said the mayor may keep him.

There are far better finance experts. My vote goes to John Hill.

There has not been one job Hill has undertaken over the past decade in which he has not shined. District residents are better off because of his contributions.

He first came to the city's aid when he worked at the Government Accounting Office. He audited the city's finances, discovering and disclosing the tricks and gimmicks used by then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and her fiscal team to mask their indisputable incompetence. Hill became the executive director of the congressionally mandated financial control board, which helped set the foundation for the District's recovery and revival.

As head of the D.C. Public Library's board of trustees, Hill helped lead a stellar restoration of the system, including construction of new facilities. If former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty had not replaced Hill as the chairman of the DC Children's Youth Investment Trust Corporation, I can guarantee you, former Councilman Harry Thomas Jr. would not have walked away with $353,000 of the public's money.

Hill recently resigned from the Federal City Council. District officials should go get him. Taxpayers -- and the government -- would be well served with Hill wearing the title "chief financial officer."

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

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