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D.C. Council Closes Hearings On Contract Issues; Coalition and Press Protests Draw Promise of Edited Public Tapes “At Some Point”

dcogcadmin | December 3, 2016

UPDATED 4-27-17. The Coalition asked Council Member Mary Cheh for an update on the release of the hearing audio and the commmittee report. In an e-mail, the Council Member responded:

“The hearings were held in executive session pursuant to Council rules. To release the audio or transcripts we need an affirmative vote by the committee, again, by council rules. Any reference to an audio was for the members who wanted to keep up before I had a transcript for them. It was never mentioned as something to be made public prior to a vote of the committee. I hope I can get a committee vote soon, but committee members are still discussing issues they have with the report as currently drafted. Of course I hope this is soon,  but can’t say precisely when.”

UPDATED 12-7-16. Post report on third day of hearings (12/5) discloses little new, just high officials denying wrongdoing. But at WAMU, Patrick Madden reported another dismissed employee, Yinka T. Alao, has initiated legal action, filing a lawsuit also this Monday (5) in D.C. Superior Court against City Administrator Rashad Young and the Distirct, reportedly seeking $10 million in damages for termination in reprisal for whistleblowing about improper procediures and orders during processing of the contract bids. Post lawsuit story here. The case is 2016-CA-8749. No court action is scheduled until March.

Few facts are yet known from the first two days of closed D.C. Council hearings last week (December 1-2) on D.C. construction contracts.

In a story Saturday (3) the Washington Post reported Council Member Mary Cheh said, without citing specific evidence, that the city administrator had showed “keen interest” in the contracts and “there’s reason to think he directed the firings” of employees who refused to steer contracts to a political donor.

One employee in the District’s Department of General Services (DGS) (who has not testified) has filed a complaint with the Office of Employee Appeals protesting his firing. News reports of the complaint say the employee claims he was terminated for refusing to award demolition and road work to a firm known as a major source of campaign contributions. 

The committee has been reviewing extensive records as well as taking testimony, and hearings will continue at least another day.

Cheh did not respond to a D.C. Coalition for Open Government letter (and press requests also) asking the hearings be open, but told the Post an edited audio recording would be available “at some point.”

D.C. law (which the Coalition has advocated for changing) doesn’t require open committee meetings of public bodies.

“Beyond stating the obvious, that a hearing from which the public is barred is not a public oversight hearing, we believe closing the hearing would be bad public policy on several levels,” Robert S. Becker, government relations committee chair for the coalition, said in the letter to Cheh on Monday (28).

“The public has a right to know whether government contracting decisions have been tainted by political influence,” wrote the Coalition, particularly where “as here, the contracts involve large expenditures of public funds that will benefit sports franchises and other private entities.”

Citing the recent $1.7 million award of damages to a D.C. government employee fired after disclosing lottery contracting concerns, the letter said “if the administration acted improperly in dismissing DGS employees and forcing [director] Chris Weaver to resign, the public has a right to know that as well.”

The Coalition recommended following the procedure in the D.C. Open Meetings Act for closing any session of any covered public body, including an explanation of the reasons for the secrecy, a public vote on the record, and prompt publication of all non-exempt parts of the hearing record.

Post reporting is here, here and here (latest), and the Coalition letter to the Council is linked below.