Who is Qualified for Public Service in the Nation’s Capital?

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On March 28, Ward 3 District Councilmember Mary Cheh convened a hearing to examine a former mayoral candidate’s allegations, which some describe as an “HR nightmare” for the new administration of Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray.

I am familiar with some of these issues as I served as the chief of staff in the agency, the Department of Health Care Finance (DHCF), where the primary subject of the hearing was ultimately hired. However, I was just as caught-off-guard as any by the charges leveled by the former mayoral contender (whose campaign antics arguably took more votes from Gray than Fenty).

Yet, I welcome the opportunity to discuss my involvement with the mayor’s election, my qualifications to serve in District government, and the events that led to my recent departure from local public service. I also look forward to addressing a related and more central matter—the issue of who is qualified to serve in District government.

As customary in the start of new District administrations, the local press conducted a routine examination of the mayor’s cabinet selections. However, finding no issues of note with the mayor’s seasoned crop of top bureaucrats, some began a rather tabloid-like scrutiny of lower-level appointees, down to the mayor’s special assistants. And out of the dozens of such lower-level mayoral selections, a small handful netted info sufficient to equate to “political dirt.” The result was a plethora of distracting media reports including one entitled “Should Criminals and Scumbags Get D.C. Jobs.”

Regrettably, I became the subject of such examination.

One news account described me as “a Gray backer” with tax, student loan and other debts, which paved the way for marital problems, ultimately resulting in a very complicated divorce. (By the way, I also encouraged fellow Muslims to seek employment opportunities in the District government.) Notwithstanding the exaggerations in some media accounts of my case, I admit and take responsibility for the claims as summarized above.

Nonetheless, the question before Councilmember Cheh is whether the “issues” raised about my personal history, which had no bearing on my work in the District’s Medicaid agency, are nonetheless sufficient to disqualify me—a lawyer with a track record of providing counsel on health and other policy matters to members of Congress, the D.C. Council, and the mayor—from appointed public service in the District. And if the answer to the above question is yes, then this begs the next question—exactly who is qualified?

Well, let’s do the math. According to 2009 statistics from the D.C. court system, over 62,000 civil cases were filed involving parties with student loan and other contractual defaults, including landlord-tenant matters. In the same year, over 13,000 cases were opened in D.C. courts for those with various marital and other intrafamily disputes. And another 400 or so people in 2009 faced local court legal proceedings for tax delinquencies. Based upon these figures, there is the possibility that as many as 75,000 people with bad credit or bad personal relationships in the District could be disqualified from any level of appointment in D.C. government, despite their professional credentials or work performance.

Who else can we add into the bag…how about “criminals?” The mayor reminded us that the District has thousands of men and women, of all races, who have returned home after paying their debts to society for convictions of criminal offenses. Yet for our statistical survey, let’s simply use the number of criminal cases prosecuted in local District courts in 2009—over 25,000. That now brings the potential number of “disqualified” Washingtonians to more than 100,000, over 20 percent of the District’s adult population.

And if one were to further disqualify those with similar run-ins with the court system over even a five-year period, that would bring your potentially disqualified number to 500,000, which statistically could disqualify all of the working-age adults in the nation’s capital from seeking appointed posts in District government.

Thus, the question for us as a society is: Where do we draw the line?

Are we saying that if you stumble—regardless of what you do to turn your life around; even if you (like me) earn mechanical engineering and law degrees, manage to secure positions of responsibility in both the private sector and the federal government, and actively contribute to civic life in the District—your "checkered" background will preclude you from appointed government service in D.C.?

If this is the answer, then the District is committing gross public waste by denying itself the full value of its greatest asset—human capital.

Talib Karim is the former chief of staff of the D.C. Department of Health Care Finance. He is a health finance lawyer, activist, and father of a 3-year-old in the nation’s capital.