WASHINGTON — Two days of testimony about the questionable hiring practices of Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration seem to indicate he was unaware of the nepotism practiced by some of his staff and the alleged quid pro quo hiring of former mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown.

On April 7, 11 witnesses were called before the Committee on Government Operations & the Environment in the second round of executive practices hearings led by D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, D-Ward 3. The witnesses’ testimonies—like their predecessors’—spun a tangled web of missteps in vetting, called-in favors and specially handled hires and conflicting reports that will prove difficult to unravel.

But there was at least one common thread in several of the accounts—Gerri Mason Hall.

Mason Hall, the mayor’s hired—then fired—chief of staff, admitted to wrongly setting salaries above acceptable caps among other missteps.

“I realized there were errors,” she testified in her opening statement. “Our approach was lacking.”

As former employee for Sodexo, Mason Hall said her salary was nearly $300,000, and her position in Gray’s administration was a step back salary-wise. Hall said she proposed a $200,000 salary to Gray, which he was “comfortable” with.

Hall later explained that the role of the chief of staff was “expanded” under this administration, unlike previous posts, which is why she thought her salary was appropriate.

Linda Wharton-Boyd, a Gray spokeswoman, said she was unaware that her son was hired into the administration. Boyd said she had a three-way conversation with Judy Banks and Hall about how to handle media reports of cronyism and nepotism in Gray’s administration, and they decided to “just tell the truth,” Boyd said.

She testified that Gray did not know that five children of employees were hired. “He was angry…disappointed,” she said of Gray’s reaction to the news. “He should have known through the chief of staff.”

Mason Hall, the former chief of staff, admitted she did not tell Gray about those special hires and about Sulaimon Brown’s hiring as a special assistant in the Department of Healthcare Finance. She said Gray saw Brown in the audience at a department meeting and was “surprised” to see his former campaign opponent there, and that the mayor was quite “upset” that no one told him.

“With the clarity of hindsight, I realize I made mistakes and exercised poor judgment,” Mason Hall said.

Brown’s recent allegations that Gray’s campaign paid him and promised him a high-paying job to attack former Mayor Adrian Fenty in the 2010 race caused a media frenzy, and prompted investigations at the local and federal level. Gray has denied the charges.

Brown—who has met with the FBI and the House committee with oversight over the District to discuss his claims—walked out of the hearing as Cheh called him to testify, prompting Cheh’s office to prepare a subpoena to compel his testimony. The day of the hearing, Brown contacted the AFRO and told reporter Valencia Mohammed that he will not talk about allegations he has made, even if subpoenaed. He said he felt the hearing had turned into a “witch hunt” and that Gray would be given a pass by his former colleagues.

“The Council really doesn’t want me down there to testify. My testimony might incriminate some of them,” he added.

Rochelle Webb, who was fired from her Department of Employment Services job, was questioned about her pricey W Hotel accommodations and her son’s employment and salary.

Webb said she made $90,000 prior to taking the $165,000 DOES position, which angered some council members. She admitted she bought a team of people with her from Arizona and did not search for hires in Washington, D.C. “This was a handpicked team,” Webb said.

Webb said she was called into a “hostile” meeting with Gray’s acting chief of staff Paul Quander and Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Victor Hoskins after she told them she was going to testify that human resources director Judy Banks did not tell that truth in the March hearing about the hiring of her son. Webb said she was fired at the meeting.

Webb said she gave Judy Banks her son’s resume, contrary to Bank’s testimony that Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe recommended Brandon Webb.

“That’s a very serious allegation,” Councilman David Catania said. Webb also said DOES Operating Officer Lisa Mallory arranged for her to have a driver and stay at the W Hotel during her job transition.

Cheh said that witnesses were called to testify before the Council after interrogation from other agencies including the FBI, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Office of Campaign.

“The committee intends to publicly present its finding. It will be up to appropriate authorities to determine if information presented by the committee merits further action,” said Frederick Hill, spokesman for the oversight committee.

 

Erica Butler

AFRO Staff Writer