The worst city government in America.
Jason DeParle is an editor of The Washington Monthly Katherine Boo and Michael Weeks provided research assistance for this article.
If you came anywhere close to Washington, D.C. last year, chances are you heard about the ambulance crews. Poor fellas, they were just a bit disoriented. They kept racing out of the fire stations and losing their way, while their patients choked and bled to death. After driving to the wrong address twice, a rescue unit never did catch up with Victim Number Nine. He lay hemorrhaging for 40 minutes until his family quit waiting for help and whisked him to the hospital, where he died. As reports of the lost ambulances increased, the fire chief got serious: he rushed out and bought his crews some $8.95 maps. And the department didn't exactly score a public relations coup when a 911 dispatcher told a distraught caller to "grow up."
Everyone knows that big-city governments are bad. But the real story is this: they're worse than you think. And they're worst of all for the poor, for whom city services such as public housing and public health care are supposed to offer a last defense against pure misery. In D.C., misery has won. The government's mismanagement is so complete that the passive sins of its inept bureaucracy surely rival any active ones of business exploitation as an oppressor of the poor.
In D.C., as in most big cities, the usual case against the government focuses on old-style sin and scandal: rumors of the mayor's drug use and mistresses, or the parole prospects of his former aides. But plain corruption, of which there's been plenty, is finally just a footnote compared to the quiet cruelty of the District's everyday bureaucratic incompetence.
A small sampler from recent months:
> A murder victim died with 22 pieces of identification in his wallet. The city classified him as "unidentified" and sent his body off to be cremated. His family found out six months later.
> An 88-year-old boarding home resident collapsed and died while covered with maggots and lice. Three different city agencies knew about the condition of the home but did nothing about it.
> A drug dealer suspected of murder walked out of the courthouse after two clerical errors combined to set him free. When the police caught up a month later, he was wanted for four more killings.
The District may be pushing incompetence to its limits, but other big-city governments aren't far behind (see page 37); remember the 61 Philadelphia rowhouses destroyed during the city's standoff with MOVE? The befuddlements of big-city government are not only tragicbut ironic, given the zest for local government across the political spectrum. The right, seeking to get the feds "off the people's back," nurtures a vision of bolstered local powers. Mainstream Democrats, attacking the Reagan-era cutbacks, have presented big-city mayors as a more compassionate example of executive leadership. And for some liberal intellectuals, city government serves as the repository of hope for those activists who wanted to "empower" the people through "Community development." But whatever the doctrinal allures, bureaucratic inanities block the empowerment of anyone besides the bureaucrats.
And money isn't the issue. Unlike the people it purports to serve, one thing the D.C. government can't cry is "poor." Attempts to say just how wellfunded it is get complicated, since the District has responsibilities that elsewhere get divided between cities, counties, and states. But even studies that adjust for the District's unique status find plenty of money heading towards the till. Only oil-rich Alaska collects more tax revenue per capita. In crucial areas like public housing, the District has even been caught returning federal money it failed to spend. "We have enough money," says John Wilson, chairman of the city council's finance and revenue committee. "I think [the government's] just inefficient and incompetent."
As for what the city does with the $4 billion in taxes and federal grants it manages to retain, there are clues. They don't, shall we say, make us wonder how city managers can make ends meet. Anecdotally, there are stories like the one about the city paying $2.5 million to rent a building it couldn't occupy because it failed to give the builder the plans to finish the interior. Or Car GT897, a city vehicle parked downtown and forgotten for nine months, while transients slept inside it. (Who says the city doesn't care about the homeless?)
Any number of hypotheses arise to account for the lost car and empty building, but a lack of clerical and administrative staff is not among them, The District has the only child support collection agency in the country that consistently has spent more than it has collected. The city historically has spent about twice the national average to deliver a welfare check. Only one state hires more administrators per teacher. And the rival governments aren't exactly portraits of efficiency. To waste more money than the competition takes work.
If bad local government were simply a matter of waste, we could just rub our sore wallets and hold a legitimate grudge. Sure, the bureaucracy functions first as a jobs program for its employees and only secondarily as a government. Sure, civil service rules keep incompetent workers in, and strict residency requirements have kept lots of talented people out. But the point isn't that city workers get more than they deserve; it's that city residents get less, particularly those most in need.
There's no small amount of irony in this since the the leaders of most big-city governments sell themselves as friends of the poor.
"The ones everybody's saying all along they're doing for-they're the ones suffering the worst," says Wilson, who, like a certain Washington, D.C. mayor, has civil rights roots in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. "The elderly The poor."
Pesky budget officials
Somewhere inside Washington's public housing authority, she's #247-56-2910. But her real number is eight. That's how many years have passed since 59-year-old Lilian Wade first applied for a place in public housing.
Back then Wade held occasional jobs as a maid or nurse's aide; now, after a heart attack, she gets by on a $359 monthly disability check. This, as you might gather, does not make her a major player in the Washington real estate market. Wade has fashioned a solution: she splits a $427, two-bedroom apartment three ways, with two other disabled women. Wade sleeps on a fold-out cot in the dining room. But even with this variation of breakfast in bed, she spends more than half her income on utilities and We go to churches and get some canned goods," she said. "We get pork and beans. We don't beg."
But not far from Wade's home there's a familiar Washington sight: empty public housing, and lots of it. In some cases, entire courtyards of shuttered, silent brick. Some of the city's vacant apartments are scattered throughout occupied projects; others are part of whole buildings emptied for "modernization" projects and often forgotten for years. Together they account for 19 percent of the city's public housing-more than 2,400 empty, waiting homes. And it's not as though the District lacks the money to fix them up: In the past three years, the city has allocated about $100 million to modernize the apartments-so much that the housing authority can't figure out how to spend it all. A few years ago, the federal government got so tired of the District's decade-long failure to spend modernization funds, it finally stopped forwarding the money. At least Wade has shelter. Others aren't so lucky. As the District's inventory of empty public apartments has grown, so have the numbers of homeless families lining up at shelters.
The District's mismanagement of public housing has a long and proud history. In 1971 auditors from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development voiced their dismay over the "apathy" of the D.C. housing employees and th"despair" of the tenants. Those were the good old days. By 1987 the mayor's blue-ribbon commission on public housing argued that "the picture had changed . . . but not for the better." And those are the mayor's own emissaries speaking.
It's no easy feat to keep so many apartments vacant and vandalized when pesky budget officials start shoveling $100 million your way. A lesser agency surely would have fixed something, even if by mistake, It took teamwork-bad maintenance, bad inventory control, bad security, bad rent collection. One feeds on another, but the lion's share of the credit goes to maintenance officials and their staffs. Not only have they taken up to eight years to fix vacated apartments but auditors have found they ignore more than half the maintenance requests from those that are still occupied. These delays help guarantee that the apartments will continue to deteriorate, sometimes so extensively tat the tenants flee. And there you go-another vacant apartment!
This perfection of service nondelivery is worth a closer look, for it illuminates not only the housing crisis but a force that animates the city bureaucracy more generally: a higher regard for employees' needs than for the needs of those they serve.
A wish called Wanda
In 1986, just about the time the maintenance workers got this system really humming, Otis Troupe, the D.C. auditor, decided to have a look. Troupe works for the city council. Housing authority officials work for the mayor. Housing authority officials more or less told Troupe to stuff it. A barbed preface to his report says that they lied about data, failed to return his phone calls, and withheld documents. In an italics-in-the-original statement, Troupe called their behavior "entirely unacceptable," which is what auditors say when they get really mad.
Troupe's audit is just one in a series of reports that tell better horror stories than Stephen King:
>Occupied apartments: One way to handle bellyaching tenants is just to ignore them. The authority failed to produce work orders on 56 percent of the maintenance requests that the property managers wrote down, Troupe said. No telling how many never get that far, And Troupe had doubts about whether the work orders that were completed produced any work. And we're not talking burnedout light bulbs. In 1987 a federal judge found the complaints included such frills as a lack of heat and hot water. Housing officials, he ruled, "ignored and walked away from their responsibilities to public housing tenants."
After losing hot water for three weeks in 1985, the residents of one project lost cold water too. They carted back buckets from a private apartment building in order to cook and wash. The next year, The Washington Post told Eva George's story: In 1980 maintenance workers removed a radiator from her home, promising to bring a new one in a few days. Three years and no radiator later, a grievance officer ruled that the 13 code violation in George's home threatened her "life, health, and safety." When the Post checked on the radiator three years after that, George was still waiting.
Well, as they say, if you don't like it, sue. But tenants have tried that too-Troupe reported that the authority hadn't fixed the faulty wiring in one apartment nine months after a court-imposed deadline. And who knows how long it took to get the case to court,
> Unoccupied apartments: Housing authority guidelines say that minor repairs to vacated apartments, such as changing locks or painting the walls, should take no more than seven days; but Troupe reported that maintenance workers in fact took an average of seven-and-a-half months. Repairs involving more substantial work, like fixing broken floors, frequently took two years. Troupe said some apartments went unfixed for as long as eight years. The maintenance department, he said, was in a state of "complete breakdown."
> Inventory control: In 1987, the housing authority hired a city policeman to check security in the warehouse. He spent an hour walking around it without security guards noticing and wrote a report concluding he "could have taken just about any property that [he] could carry out of the building." Apparently others have had the same idea. From 1981 to 1983, HUD reported, the city lost track of more than $300,000 worth of appliances. Closed circuit security cameras were installed in the warehouse-and stolen. In 1986, The Washington Post quoted comments leaked from a closed housing authority meeting in which the director said she couldn't fully account for $1 million worth of refrigerators and ranges.
> Follow-up: So what happens after an epic struggle finally ends in a renovation? Often, nothing. The city spent $128,000 in 1985 to fix up one longabandoned rowhouse, Troupe reported, but eight months later, it was still empty. He cited "numerous instances" where renovated homes "remain vacant for months after completion," which subjected them "to vandalism and further deterioration."
For a look of our own, The Washington Monthly recently picked a random project for a visit. We met Wanda Wilson, who lives with her son at the Greenleaf apartments in southwest Washington. Her large kitchen sink has no legs; a two-by-four keeps it from taking down the kitchen wall. One pipe drips into a waiting bucket, and another simply falls out from time to time. When the woman upstairs does her laundry, she says, water leaks into Wilson's kitchen, so she listens for the machine and makes sure there's no food on the counter.
That's just her kitchen. Part of the bathroom ceiling is corroded, and part is simply missing. Wilson says she hadn't had heat for three years and uses her oven instead. After maintenance workers failed to fix her son's broken window for two years, she says, she broke into the vacant apartment next door, took one, and fixed it herself. "I think it's a lost cause," she says. "To the city, it's like I'm not even here."
Screws and booze
With a record like that, you'd think the District had but a single Mr.
Fixit, working his weary way through the city's 2,700 backlogged maintenance requests. But in fact it has plenty of hired help-more, literally, than it knows what to do with. HUD recommends one maintenance man for every 40 apartments; the District has one for every 26. "[T]he number of maintenance workers is more than adequate," stressed the blue ribbon commission report.
So what, then, is the problem? One thing this army of carpenters, plumbers, and custodians needs is a decent general. Instead they've seen more changes of govemment than postwar Italy, with many top administrative posts being filled by a leader name"Vacant." From 1983 to 1985, the housing authority went through four different administrators, including a six-month period with none at all; two deputy administrators, with the slot empty for 22 months; and four chiefs of management, including a year under an acting manager's direction. During that time, Vacant served as chief of maintenance for 23 straight months.
That's just the beginning of the bureaucratic bafflements. Troupe reported that the authority frequently dispatches its most skilled workers, such as electricians or refrigerator repairmen, to perform its least-skilled repairs-like setting circuit breakers, or pouring Drano into clogged "You have the wrong people in the wrong places doing the wrong things," says Glenda Sloane, who served as the blue ribbon commission's staff director. "You have skilled people doing yardwork."
Meanwhile, some maintenance workers report to the managers of individual apartment complexes and others report back to central headquarters. This leads both to confusion and "a clash of egos," says Calvin Gurley, the staff assistant for the blue-ribbon subcommittee on maintenance. Typical are fights between the foremen, who are mostly male, and the project managers, who are mostly women.
For all the broken toilets, missing sinks, or unheated apartments, there's one building that gets worked on rather often-the housing authority headquarters at 1133 North Capitol Street. Troupe's review of time sheets revealed that in 1984 and 1985, at least 15 percent of all maintenance workers' time had been spent fixing administrators' offices. And he noted that the authority's work records are so screwed up that many workers' days were unaccounted for, so the actual touch-up of H.Q. may have been more extensive. This demonstration of the bureaucrats' willingness to share the tenants' burdens comes with an ironic footnote: the housing authority doesn't own its administration buildings, another city agency does, and therefore its maintenance staff isn't supposed to work on it at all. But what are friends for?
Not that bringing the troops downtown didn't serve a function. Administrators got to see what it was that the maintenance staff was trying to maintain. "We have a very serious problem with some of our property staff with alcohol and substance abuse histories," said Madeline Petty, the authority's former director, in prepared remarks to her staff in 1985 obtained by the The Washington Post. "It is widely reported that on some properties many of the maintenance staff drink or get high on the job. . . .There are instances of maintenance staff being personally involved with residents and showering those residents with extra maintenance services while other residents go lacking. And, some of these maintenance staff are spending time in these women's units when they should be working." Maybe these are the folks James Taylor had in mind when he sang, "Hey baby, I'm your handy man."
Drugs are one problem; illiteracy is another. One reason so many tenant complaints get ignored, the mayor's commission reported, is that many maintenance workers can't read the complaint forms. And a lack of handyman skills, which tend to be a good thing for handymen to have, is a third: "Much of the staff," the commissioners delicately put it"lacks requisite skills or training." Alphonso Jackson, the authority's director, put it less delicately. After taking over two years ago, he told the city council that the agency was full of employees "who are not capable of doing their jobs," including boiler room mechanics "creating havoc in our boiler rooms" and a plumber "who knows nothing about plumbing, and he's been here 15 years." Jackson's now applying for a job in Dallas.
At least these shortcomings haven't held anyone back. The 1984 HUD audit found that about 80 percent of the housing authority's 337 maintenance men were "overgraded"-getting an electrician's salary, say, for taking gut the trash. One foreman drawing top pay for supervising 27 people actually supervised two. The agency's two exterminators, HUD found, did no pest-control work.
While housing officials issue lots of vows to clean things up, the two words you're least likely to hear are "you're fired." Given union and civil service protec"it is almost impossible to fire anyone regardless of how incompetent or nonproductive," the mayor's report concluded. Charles Goggins, then the housing authority's chief of maintenance, told the commissioners about a maintenance worker who went AWOL for 1,000 hours. He kept his job. "It was a lack of discipline from the top all the way down," said Sloane, the commission staff director. "It was an environment where people felt, 'You cartt fire me, you can't do anything to me.'"
That's not to say that all city maintenance men are drugged-out dodos. Buried in the commission's report, there's a nice story about some of them. Daunted by the difficulty of scheduling a truck from the city motor pool, some maintenance workers used their own cars to move heavy equipment. And they did it without reimbursement for gas or wear-'n'-tear. A few years of toting refrigerators around in their car trunks must leave these people awfully demoralized. But not as demomlized as the residents of the city's cold, crumbling apartments, and the 7,000 people lined up to get in.
Home is where the hose is
While the crisis in D.C. public housing has consigned Lilian Wade to a waiting list, it dumps others into the street. This, in turn, gives the city government the chance to add to the misery of another class of people: the homeless.
Exhibits A and B in this regard are two city-run shelters, Pierce and Blair. Just when it seemed that the wretchedness of the homeless had lost all shock value, Jack Cloherty, a local television reporter, showed that things can always get worse (see Monthly Journalism Award, page 13). Rats, scabies, lice, and urine-soaked mattresses are abundant at the shelters. Showers, sheets, towels, toilet seats and toilet paper are not. Pierce offers four showers for 170 men. Sister Ronnie Daniel, who works at Blair, says that that shelter offers none. But when Cloherty went to have a look, city workers threw him out. Daniel says the staff responded to one shower request by handing a homeless man a hose.
Well, well, money's tight, and in an age of govemment cutbacks you can't have everything. But the city spends $1.2 million a year to run the two shelters. This, as it turns out, may not buy much soap, but it buys a lot of employees-52 of them, in fact. Cloherty reported that Washington's church-run shelters provide a real night's sleep for about half the cost of the city-run squalor. Sheets and towels included. No rats allowed.
Cloherty presented the appropriate officials with the evidence and managed to flush out a bureaucratic response priceless for its adherence to classic lines: "We've been trying as best we can with minor repairs to keep [shelters] up to a minimum standard of safety and comfort," said Virginia Fleming, deputy director for administration at the Department of Human Services.
Not that the city doesn't have standards where private shelters are concerned. Luther Place Church helps run nine different facilities for the homeless, including a medical clinic, emergency shelters, and group homes. The church pastor, John Steinbruck, chaired the D.C. Commission on Homelessness. Last year, city inspectors visited his church shelters and wrote up six pages of violations-citing such dangers to the dispossessed as "walkway has cracks" and "rooming unit not numbered." Steinbruck says it cost the church $10,000 to comply. Perhaps this Clouseau-like application of magnifying glass to church sidewalk is what has delayed city inspectors from arriving at the city-run shelters.
The spending money pocketed by the 52 shelter workers-about $23,000 each if you divide it out- is nothing by the standards of homelessness magnates like Cornelius Pitts. Beginning in 1982, a series of, shall we say, generous city contracts to house homeless families pulled the Pitts Motor Hotel out of deep red and plunged it into abundant, lucrative black.By 1986 annual payments ranging between $1.3 million and $1.5 million had allowed Pitts and his wife to eke out an annual income of $245,000 in salary, benefits, and profits, reported Marianne Szegedy-Maszak in The Washington Monthly ["How the Homeless Bought a Rolls for Cornelius Pitts," July/August 1987] . The Pitts contract had a number of marvelous provisions, such as charging the city $97.07 per square foot for office space in a neighborhood of junkies and prostitutes while the city was paying only $15 for prime office space downtown. No wonder Szegedy-Maszak found Pius tooling around in a $117,000 Rolls Royce and a $61,000 Mercedes-Benz.
The Pitts was less kind to its homeless families, who, city inspectors reported, hunkered down sixto-a-room in the midst of loose plaster, leaks, poor ventilation, holes in the walls and floors, no fire alarms, broken lights, bedbugs, roaches, and other insects. Given this bargain, DHS officials renewed Pitts's contract from 1982 to 1986 without even bothering to seek other bidder's. A church organization down the street from Pitts offered the city better services for about 20 percent of the cost-$500 a month as opposed to $2,748. But DHS wasn't interested. Pitts, who, like most of his clients, is black, says he knows why. "It is difficult for a white business person to care for my people," he told Szegedy-Maszak. "I just don't believe that any white person can be as interested in the welfare of poor black people as a black person."
Pitts's cross-town rival, the Capitol City Inn, does things on a slightly larger scale, picking up $4.3 million a year without even a contract. In 1988 Otis Troupe reported that the motel's food service contractor, in just eight months, had overcharged the city between $500,000 and $750,000.
Given, among other factors, the mismanagement of D.C. public housing, even these two motels can't accommodate all the homeless families in need of city help. So the city spreads the wealth around, paying landlords in D.C's poorest neighborhoods prices that would raise eyebrows in Georgetown. In the winter of 1987, the city rented 12 furnished one- and two-bedroom apartments in southeast Washington for $3,078 each a month; unfurnished one-bedrooms in the same neighborhood were renting for about $350. But the landlord did throw in some counseling services (including, one might hope, the counsel to go into business renting apartments to the city). Shopping around, the city managed to whittle down a nearby competitor to the bargain basement price of $2,661. But this time the city's apartment hunters had connections: the building was partly owned by the city's deputy mayor for economic development-a man, it seems, who practices what he preaches.
Bureaucrats on the veld
Given its size alone, there's probably no better sample of the D.C. government than the Department of Human Services. With 9,800 employees and a $1 billion budget, DHS accounts for about 25 percent of city spending. It accounts for a good share of city turmoil, too-with four directors in two years, DHS makes the New York Yankees look like a paragon of stable management.
Director Number One, David Rivers, resigned during a federal investigation into contracting irregularities. Director Number Two, Byron Marshall, served in an acting capacity for six months. In the meantime, Marion Barry, a mayor whose passion for efficient government knows no bounds, cast his net wide for someone to put the department back on course. Instead, he got M. Jerome Woods, a California consultant whose earlier stewardship of the California social services department had provoked a legislative investigation into-that's rightcontracting irregularities. Woods lasted nine months in the District, until the reporters discovered that he was using city money to buy groceries and pay rent for himself and his top aides. In the wake of the Rivers investigation, that was too much even for Barry (which is saying something) and the mayor fired him.
The condition of the Blair and Pierce shelters givesone hint of the quality of DHS work. D.C. Village, the city's largest nursing home, offers another.
In January 1985, 88-year-old Wilhelmina Franklin froze to death at D.C. Village after getting locked outside on a 25-degree night. Two months later, 71-year-old George Spells was burned to death by scalding water in the shower. Just as revealing as the deaths was the city's reaction: Like Afrikaaners on the veld, the bureaucracy circled the wagons-insuring its own survival if not that of its patients. The city brought in a consultant to quiet the uproar, then bagged her when her recommendations proved too tough. DHS announced an investigation of the deaths that dragged on for almost a year and a half and then exhonerated the nursing home staff. Plus the city sued the victims' families for hundreds of thousands of dollars to recover the cost of the "care."
Among the various adjectives that come to mind concerning the care of Franklin and Spells, "vigilant" does not arise. On the night she died, Franklin was missing from the 9 p.m. bedcheck. No one bothered to look for hen She was still missing at the 11 p. m. bedcheck. Well, let's see, where could she be? Franklin had a habit of wandering outside, especially in the cold, but no one bothered to check there. ("Hey, man, it's freezing out-you go.") By and by, they called the cops, who found Franklin's frozen corpse beside her wheelchair, 50 feet from the building. Ahh, so that's where she was!
The staff didn't have to go outside to check on Spells; he traveled right past the nursing station to a shower that nurses knew was spewing out scalding water. A month earlier, a maintenance foreman had told them that he couldn't get the part he needed to fix the boiler. They posted warning notices and began giving sponge baths. But Spells, who was conrised, incontinent, and senile, continued to try to bathe himself. A measure of the nurses' lookout skills might be found in the fact that they initialed the safe-and-sound box on his medical chart for hours after he'd been rushed to a nearby burn ward, where he died ten days later.
After two negligent deaths in three months, Spells wasn't the only one in hot water. Under fire, DHS officials stalled for time. Promising to discipline those responsible, they began an investigation that ended 17 months later with the conclusion that no one should be punished. Officials explained that sufficiently clear "policy and procedures were not in place.'"
At the suggestion of an advisory commission impaneled after the deaths, the city hired Sandra Casper, a Wisconsin nursing home consultant, to help set things straight. Casper poked around for a few months and delivered a stinging report. She attacked the facility's hygiene ("dry, caked residue on lips and chins. . .bloody drainage seeping through her knee sock over the top of her left foot. . .") . She faulted its supervision ("nurses were vague about who was in charge"). She found sanitation lacking ("pest and roach problems are persistent. . . pesticides. . .are often unavailable for months. . . fecal matter found on the floor. . . a strong smell of urine prevailed throughout the facility. . ."). She suggested that "TV was on for the staffs benefit, not the residents." And she found continued problems with, of all things, the boiler.
When Casper issued a follow-up report a few months later stating that little had changed, city officials had heard enough. Thank you, they said, and welcome back to Wisconsin. "She was a real embarrassment to them," says Anne Hart, the city's long-term care ombudsman "They didn't like whit she told them, so they got rid of her."
While the city decided it had no beef with the nursing home staff, it was less forgiving of the victims' families. Facing two negligent-death suits, the city sued back for $340,000-its view of what the nursing home care had been worth. City law allows officials to recoup the cost of indigent care if the indigents somehow leave estates-from insurance policies, say. To use the law to recoup damages the city pays for killing its patients was certainly a novel legal twist. City attorneys finally abandoned this approach and settled out of court, paying $85,000 to the Franklins and $98,000 to the Spellses.
That was two years ago. How are things now? In 1987 and 1988, inspectors found unchanged wound dressings, poorly kept records, peeling paint, a leaking ceiling, poorly labeled drugs, roaches, water bugs, and asbestos.
Well, these things take time.
'I lacerated uteruses'
Not every public facility can match the one-two, hot-cold whammy of D.C. Village. But given the way city inspectors enforce the law, they're certainly free to try.
How's this for a year's work? In March, three children died in a rooming house fire; city inspectors had long known of serious fire-code violations, but let the house stay open. In July, a 65 -year-old woman in a home for the mentally retarded died after setting a fire in her room; city inspectors had a long list of violations at the home, but let it stay open. Later in the year, police announced they were investigating reports that the owner of a day-care center had raped the pre-schoolers. Guess what? City inspectors had received repeated charges of sexual abuse. And they let the day care center stay open.
In the spring, police charged Weldon Ferguson, the operator of a home for the mentally retarded, with sodomizing a client, As you might have guessed, despite complaints of abuse from the patients themselves, the city let the home stay open. But this story comes with a twist: Among the patients was Wayne Smith, whose complaint of sexual abuse was taken so seriously by the city inspectors that they dashed off a letter telling him to call and arrange an interview. "Failure to respond to this letter will result in closure of the complaint," an administrator warned. Smith, who is mentally retarded, doesn't read. The result was "closure of the complaint." And another 22 months passed until a doctor discovered that another patient had been sodomized. Ferguson pled guilty in September to sexual assault. At least six residents of the home say they were sexually abused while city inspectors kept Ferguson in business.
Ready for one more?
In August, an 88-year-old resident of a D.C. boarding house collapsed and died after arriving in an emergency room while covered with maggots and lice; D.C. inspectors had documented the filth at the home but let it stay open. In fact, three different city agencies knew about the conditions there, documented them, and then did nothing. A social worker at George Washington University offered reporters this description of Doris Giovannoni's body when it arrived at the emergency room: "She was absolutely filthy, and her body odor was beyond description. . . . She was covered with lice, and her knee-high stockings appeared to be bonded to her skin. When the stockings were removed, in fact, the skin came off with them, and her ankles and feet were infested and covered with large and small maggots eating well into the tissue '"
A record like that-five dead and many sodomized-ought to win someone an award. Our nominee is Frances A. Bowie, head of the Service Facility Regulation Administration, which licenses the city's nursing homes, day care centers, dialysis centers, homes for the mentally retarded, abortion clinics, and lots of other places to which vulnerable people turn. The agency's name makes it sound like it runs gas stations. If it did, they'd stress selfservice, with a motto telling patients to "help yourself '"
This may have been the record-setting year, but city inspectors have been training for a long time. Consider the early-eighties wne-up match against the Yugoslavian abortionist, Milan Vuitch. City files bulged with violations dating back at least to 1980. A sampler: instruments "in need of cleaning" and "lab specimens. . .refrigerated with food" (1980); patients illegally taken home overnight, use of expired drugs (1981); unlicensed drug distribution and surgical instruments mixed with clean ones (1982); a patient sent home with red urine and a catheter inside her (1982); anesthesia "not freshly prepared and yellowish in color" (1983). Until 1982, the city kept renewing the clinic's license. After that, with inspectors' reports growing ever more vocal, the agency just let Vuitch operate without one.
Only when Mark Feldstein of Channel 9 aired a graphic series on the clinic in 1984 did the city bureaucracy stir. And even then it didn't stir much. Feldstein, who's building a career on the inanities of the SFRA, presented some of the doctor's handiwork. This included the stories of two women who died on Vuitch's table, and another who said Vuitch operated without anesthesia. Vuitch admitted he sent yet another home after half an abortion and told her to return the next day with an additional $400. She collapsed. Though Vuitch insisted she stay away from a hospital, she finally made it to an emergency room and gave birth to a dying fetus. She was 17 years old and six months pregnant. As a nice touch, Feldstein sent a woman co-worker into the clinic with a vial of his urine. The clinic told her she was pregnant and suggested an abortion.
Any lingering doubts about Vuitch's talents were erased when the doctor himself went on camera. "This is not the only lacerated uterus in 15 years," he said. "I lacerated uteruses and other surgeons lacerated. And perforated. And this and that." Asked about the woman who said Vuitch had denied her anesthesia, he answered, "German-origin girl. Very pushy. . .in the old country. . .we never used general anesthesia for abortion. But American woman is sensitive. . .doesn't want to have memories of the surgery.'"
In response to Feldstein's questions, Bowie's office finally issued a statement. They said they wouldn't renew the clinic's lapsed license for 1983-a nice gesture except that it was November, 1984. Vuitch was still operating at the time of the broadcast, and it took the subsequent public clamor to close him down.
Archive of indifference
In 1985, Margaret Engel of The Washington Post reviewed hundreds of SFRA inspections and found that the city had frequently ignored citizen complaints (as Weldon Ferguson's sodomized clients can auest), waived mandatory federal rules, and failed to follow up on documented violations. In 1986, David Clarke, the city council chairman, charged that Bowie had taken six years to rewrite drug regulations-abandoning their enforcement in the meantime"I don't want to be crass," Clarke said, "but what took six years?" Perhaps part of the answer can be found in events such as a 1986 seminar for the employees of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, of which the SFRA is a pan. The department shut down dozens of its offices so that 140 of DCRA's 840-member staff could attend a seminar called "The Customer and You-Partners in Service."
But if the inspectors are a little hard for the public to reach, they've been perfectly accommodating toward the nursing homes-offering advance notice of inspections and a chance to do some sprucing up.
A 1985 Mark Feldstein series on three troubled homes owned by self-described multimillionaire Joan Sutton explained how this works. Inspection Day brought new food: "They fix 'em deviled eggs. . . ," said one former employee. "You don't see no deviled eggs unless inspectors come through." It brought new furniture: "Things would be brought right at inspection time, and they would be collected right up after the inspectors left," said another. It even brought new patients: "Residents were removed. . .because they didn't look good," said a third employee. "They might be fat, sloppy, kind of ugly, unkempt, had a big mouth, liked to talk, liked to complain."
"That's all our people," said Sutton, denying this was anything special.
Sutton places were back in the news this summer after 65-year-old Sylvia Singer died in a fire. The home she died in, Sutton's Caldwell House, became a target of attack by neighborhood groups, who said the patients walked the streets half-naked, begging for money. Ever-vigilant, the city inspection office decided to have a look.
A good place to begin would have been the inspectors' own files, which contained documented complaints about the home dating back to 1980. A former Caldwell House supervisor wrote inspectors in 1986 that he had "observed some residents urinating and defecating on themselves, . . . residents eating cigarette butts, trash out of the trash can, eating their own feces." In 1985, Feldstein reported that city inspectors had documented 397 violations at Sutton homes in five years. Feldstein's hidden camera filmed patients smoking dope in their rooms and unlicensed workers giving out powerful psychotropic drugs.
Bowie conceded the homes had had a few problems but argued"were not serious enough to pose immediate danger to the health and safety of residents there." Feldstein pressed on, quoting from a report from a different city agency that Sutton patients were losing weight from bad food and that two had died mysteriously. The report had sat in Bowie's office for nearly a year.
The subsequent on-camera exchange belongs in an archive of bureaucratic indifference:
"I'll hue to read that report in detail," Bowie said.
"Don't you think allegations of that serious nature should be investigated thoroughly at the time they're turned over?" Feldstein asked.
"I'll have to read that report in detail," Bowie said.
'Are you concerned that your department had this information nearly a year and didn't act on it?" Feldstein asked.
Bowie laughed"I am concerned about a number of things," she said.
"What did your people do about this when they got the report?" Feldstein asked.
"I will address that issue at another time," Bowie said.
"Why were you not informed what was going on with this 21-page investigative report?" Feldstein asked.
"I will have to address this with the appropriate individuals," Bowie explained.
Though my attempts to speak to Bowie were unsuccessful, I did get to talk to two other DCRA officials, and I asked them if the recent deaths and sexual molestations indicated a pattern of lax enforcement. No way, said Lucenia Dunn, a public information officer. She stressed that DCRA is "an innovative, action-oriented department." Its motto is "People Working With People for People," she said. "We take that very seriously."
Bowie's a bureaucratic survivor. She's managed to hang on as inspection chief for seven years, which must make her one of the city's most enduring officials. But her former boss, Carol Thompson, who headed DCRA for three years until 1986, did her one better. Her years as the city's top inspector earned her a promotion, first to deputy mayor and now to city administrator, a $77,500 job as the District's top bureaucrat.
"Her energy level is legendary," the Post recently enthused. Why, she even gave city inspectors copies of In Search of Excellence! "Thompson," the Post concluded, "wants to change the widely held view that the District government is inefficient."
Thompson's expanded responsibilities include supervising the city's ambulances and public housing-suitable places to search for more excellence.
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|Title Annotation:||Washington, D.C.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1989|
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