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D.C. hands out $15M in bonuses despite recession, budget gaps

Monday, December 14, 2009 - 4:51pm

WASHINGTON D.C. - The economy has been in the dumps for years, but the good times keep on rolling for some favored D.C. employees.

City officials have doled out nearly $15 million in bonuses and awards since Mayor Adrian Fenty took office in January 2007, records obtained by The Examiner under the Freedom of Information Act show.

Among the big winners were Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who was handed $41,250 in August 2007 after barely two months on the job; Department of Health Director Pierre Vigilance, who was given $15,000 in 2008; and city property manager Robin-Eve Jasper, handed $18,000 over two years.

The bonuses were ladled out even as the city was facing nine-figure budget shortfalls and officials — including Rhee — were firing employees by the busload, claiming they could no longer afford them.

It paid to be on Rhee's good side. School employees, including Rhee's top staff, accounted for nearly half of the Fenty-era bonuses, records show. Then-special education "czar" Phyllis Harris was paid $17,000 in 2008; special-ed bureaucrat Karen Griffin was given $25,000 the same year; and Rhee's chief of staff, Lisa Ruda, was given $17,000 in 2008, records show.

Under Rhee, standardized test scores in the public schools have made marginal improvements. Fourth-graders' test result are now only the fourth-worst in the nation; eighth-graders' are only the second-worst.

Worried by possible bad publicity for doling out cash during a recession, the city council voted to ban the practice as of Oct. 1, 2009. That hasn't stopped the gravy train from rolling: Records show hundreds of employees have been paid more than $565,000 in bonuses since October.

Attorney General Peter Nickles said most of the bonuses to employees were tied to contracts that were entered into when "times were better" and that the city couldn't back out of them now.

"We're no longer entering into those contracts," he said.

Nickles said the bonuses were worth the cost.

"We've made tremendous progress in these three years," he said.

Condemnation from other quarters was swift.

"Fenty, Rhee and [police Chief Cathy] Lanier have tried to tell everybody in the city we don't have enough police officers, firefighters and teachers because they don't have any money. But at the same time they're lining the pockets of their favorites," police union Chairman Kris Baumann said. "If you put this in a movie, people wouldn't believe it. It would be too far-fetched."

Councilwoman Mary Cheh, D-Ward 3, handed out bonuses for some staff in 2007-08, but this year voted to stop bonuses citywide. She said she was mystified that the practice continued.

"The idea was everybody was going to share the pain," she said. "We could hardly give bonuses when everybody was losing their jobs."

Not all of the bonuses had high price tags. Ted Loza, onetime chief of staff to Councilman Jim Graham, D-Ward 1, was given more than $3,000 in bonuses in the past two years, including a $700 bonus in April. In September, he was arrested on federal bribery charges.

"Of course, subsequent events have been very disturbing," Graham said. "But at the time, I wasn't aware of any of that."

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