WASHINGTON — Washington’s new mayor hasn’t had much of a honeymoon. Three months after he succeeded Adrian Fenty, Vincent Gray has been besieged by controversies and minor scandals.
The most serious allegations involve whether the Gray campaign funneled cash and promised a six-figure job to a minor candidate who was attacking Fenty during last year’s mayoral contest. The Justice Department has said it is reviewing the allegations to determine if a criminal investigation is warranted.
Meanwhile, Gray has drawn fire for the hiring of supporters’ relatives and for his handling of the city’s troubled finances. He abruptly fired his chief of staff, and a recent poll showed that fewer than one in three voters approve of his job performance.
The image that Gray presents, observers say, is of a mayor who can’t effectively manage his staff and is constantly on the defensive.
“He is off to just a terrible, terrible start,” said Mark Rom, a Georgetown University political scientist. The allegations “give the appearance that he’s gone back to old-school Washington politics.”
The D.C. government was plagued by cronyism and poor financial management under Mayor Marion Barry, who went to prison in the early 1990s after he was videotaped smoking crack during an FBI sting. There have been few major scandals during the past decade.
The D.C. Council is investigating Gray’s hiring practices and will hear testimony Thursday. A U.S. House committee headed by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is looking into the campaign-related allegations.
Gray told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he had moved beyond the controversies that plagued the early weeks of his administration and that it’s “grossly unfair” that such issues are overshadowing his accomplishments as mayor.
Aides point to Gray’s naming of a permanent new schools chancellor and his expansion of a program to offer instant treatment to people who are diagnosed with HIV.
A former council chairman, the 69-year-old Gray scored a decisive victory over Fenty in last fall’s Democratic primary before easily winning the general election in the mostly Democratic city.
Gray, who is black, dominated the less-affluent, mostly black wards east of the Anacostia River, where he lives. Fenty, who is biracial and who critics painted as aloof and autocratic, captured the wealthy, mostly white enclaves of Northwest Washington.
One of the other mayoral candidates was Sulaimon Brown, a Fenty critic who was known for saying, “Go Brown, go Gray — go any color but Fenty.”
Brown received 209 votes in the Democratic primary. But his steady attacks on Fenty drew praise during the campaign from Gray and his campaign chairwoman and close friend, Lorraine Green, who Brown said met with him at Union Station.
“She asked me what I was looking for,” Brown told The Associated Press.
He said he told her he needed money to keep his campaign afloat and for personal expenses, and that during the meeting, she gave him a white envelope containing $750. He said he ultimately received thousands of dollars in cash and money orders from Green and Howard Brooks, another Gray campaign staffer. No payments have been independently verified by the AP or other media outlets, although Brown said he has saved the envelopes in which the cash was given to him.
Gray and Green, a recently retired Amtrak executive, have said they did not give Brown any money. She did not return telephone messages from the AP. Brooks’ attorney, Glenn F. Ivey, also denied that his client or the Gray campaign gave money to Brown and said Brown had little credibility.
Brown, who has worked in the private sector as an auditor, said he also told Green he wanted a job after the campaign and requested a yearly salary between $125,000 and $150,000.
“She said, ‘That’s doable,'” Brown said.
Gray took office on Jan. 2. Brown was hired Jan. 31 as a special assistant to the mayor in the Department of Health Care Finance, at a salary of $110,000 a year. He was fired Feb. 24.
Gray and Green have said Brown was promised an interview, not a job. The day before Brown was fired, Gray defended him, saying he was qualified for the work he was doing. He later characterized the Brown hiring as one of his administration’s “missteps.”
One of Brown’s former superiors testified last week before the council that Brown was fired for unprofessional conduct, including harassing female employees. He also said that Gerri Mason Hall, Gray’s former chief of staff, instructed him to find a position for Brown.
Brown said he has spoken to the FBI about his allegations. Gray has hired attorney Robert Bennett, who represented President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Gray fired Hall on March 16, saying the questions about personnel practices had become a distraction.
“There are some personnel decisions that were made that we, of course, wish hadn’t happened, and ultimately I’m responsible for these things,” Gray said.
The council’s investigation found that Gray was paying salaries to several staffers that exceeded the caps set by the council. The salaries have since been reduced.
Gray also hired the children of several aides and campaign staffers. All but one have resigned.
The mayor said Wednesday he was not aware of the hiring of his staffers’ relatives or the excessive salaries and that when he became aware, he addressed the problems.
“You don’t evaluate an administration on a Sulaimon Brown,” Gray said. “You look at all the good people that have been brought into the administration.”
Gray said he was not concerned that any testimony or statements to investigators from his aides would paint him in a negative light. He also said neither he nor Bennett had been contacted by the FBI.
Council member Mary Cheh, D-Ward 3, who’s leading the probe of the mayor’s hiring, endorsed Gray in the primary — putting her at odds with her affluent constituents. She said she’s now “demoralized” by the allegations and questions the competence of some of Gray’s staff, but believes the mayor is a good man.
Some Gray supporters are taking a wait-and-see approach.
“I like Gray. I like him better than I liked Fenty. Fenty was just arrogant. I say, innocent until proven guilty,” said Arnetta McKenzie, 63, a black voter and George Washington University medical center employee.
Kevin Bertram, 39, a technology executive who voted for Fenty and is white, said he expected that Gray’s victory would herald a return to “the bad old days.” But he’s still dismayed by what’s occurred on Gray’s watch.
“I want him to be successful,” Bertram said. “I just don’t know if he has the moral backbone or moral courage to be.”