Thursday, January 22, 2009

Johnson Appointees Run Amok at WSSC

The dysfunction of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) continues to be a big story, with pipe breaks sending a 75-foot wide river to engulf residents in Temple Hills and forcing guests at the Gaylord National Resort to avoid tap water. But our informants have tipped us off to one of the biggest reasons for WSSC’s collapse: the abysmal behavior of Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson’s appointed commissioners.

WSSC is overseen by six commissioners, three each appointed by the County Executives of Montgomery and Prince George’s. The three commissioners appointed by Johnson are Joyce Starks, Prem Agarwal and Juanita Miller. Starks is a budget manager at the National Institutes of Health and has no experience in utility management or construction. Prince George’s Delegate Barbara Frush (D-21) told the Gazette “she didn't have a clue what was going on,” during her tenure as WSSC Chair in 2004-2005. At the time, the Washington Post editorial page said she had “displayed consistent impulses for secrecy, backroom dealing and bad management.” Nevertheless, Starks is serving as Chair again.

Prem Agarwal owns G.E. Frisco Company, a building materials contractor, that has submitted bids on WSSC work despite being warned not to do so by the utility’s managers. The Washington Post found that Agarwal’s company was awarded $1.46 million of WSSC work during his first nine months as a commissioner after Agarwal and his family donated $12,000 to Jack Johnson’s campaign accounts.

But Juanita Miller is in a class by herself. A special education administrator in the Prince George’s public school system, she was elected to the House of Delegates in 1986 from District 25 for one term. Miller later ran unsuccessfully for the County Council and the State Senate. She was first appointed as a WSSC commissioner in 1996 by former Prince George’s County Executive Wayne Curry, serving through 2002.

It did not take long for Miller to leave her mark on the agency. One year into her first term, Miller intervened in a contract dispute. Recyc Systems Inc., a white-owned firm, won a sludge-hauling contract at WSSC’s Blue Plains site with a low bid of $11.5 million. But Miller pushed the WSSC board to reject Recyc’s bid in favor of MTI Construction, a minority-owned firm, which was the third-lowest bidder at $13.5 million. Miller never told the board that MTI had contributed to her political campaigns. A state court ordered WSSC to reconsider its rejection and an ethics investigation ensued.

After the WSSC board deadlocked on the Recyc-MTI dispute, Miller accused the agency of racism in contracting. Then-General Manager Cortez A. White, who is black, said this about her charges:

The lowest of all polarizing techniques has been used – emotionally charged claims of racism and discrimination, similar to tactics used by Sen. Joseph McCarthy to hunt alleged communists during the early '50s… Unfortunately, the rhetoric on the sludge hauling contract has digressed to a point where political games are being played with professional lives. Personal attacks have been made because technical and professional assessments have not supported certain parochial, political goals. Such remarks are particularly disgraceful because they were uttered by a public official in a position of rank upon essentially defenseless staffers.
But Miller was not finished with hurling charges of racism. In 2002, Miller was in her last year on the commission and took on State Senate President Mike Miller (D-27) in a primary. Juanita Miller wrote the U.S. Justice Department complaining of “bid-rigging” at WSSC against minority contractors. She was joined in her request by then-commissioner Kevin P. Maloney of Montgomery County, who alleged bid-rigging against white contractors(!) Miller also alleged that WSSC was “targeting” African-Americans and women for harassment. Miller’s allegations followed the firing of an employee accused of committing $200,000 in fraud against the agency and a Montgomery County investigation finding multiple WSSC commissioners’ abuse of expense money. Nothing came of Juanita Miller’s bid-rigging accusations and Mike Miller defeated her by 62-33% in their Senate primary.

Just when WSSC thought it had seen the last of Miller, new County Executive Jack Johnson decided to reappoint her to the board in 2005. “It appears that I am ordained to be a public servant,” declared the triumphant Miller, who sits on the board to this day.

Miller rejoined a WSSC board that had just concluded a holy war against General Manager John R. Griffin. In March 2004, the board fired Griffin and his deputy on a 4-2 vote because they allegedly “recklessly spent the agency's money on raises, executive bonuses, excessive travel and consulting fees, mostly without the commissioners’ consent.” But WSSC’s legal counsel found the firing to be illegal because the board met behind closed doors and did not take a recorded public vote. The Post editorial board said Griffin was “competent” and the firing was “needless.” Griffin and his deputy later accepted a buyout. Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan asked his county’s three commissioners to resign over the incident. Jack Johnson refused to replace his commissioners, saying he was “happy” with WSSC’s performance.

Much of the struggle inside WSSC’s board has been over its minority contracting program. Part of former General Manager Griffin’s undoing was his constant battles with Shaaron W. Phillips, the former head of the agency’s minority contracting office, who later sued the agency for discrimination. In 2004, the board tried to assume direct control of minority contracting at a closed-door meeting to which two commissioners were not invited. That action prompted threats of intervention from the Ehrlich administration. The General Assembly failed to reauthorize the program in 2006 but WSSC continues it on an interim basis. Unfortunately, the push for minority contractors has served in the past as a way to steer business to certain minority contractors, as Juanita Miller showed during the 1997 Recyc-MTI dispute.

State politicians have acknowledged WSSC’s problems for years. In 2004, then-Delegate Rich Madaleno (D-18) called the board’s closed-door attempt to take control of minority contracting “shocking.” In 2005, former Senator Leonard Teitelbaum (D-19), who had once been a WSSC commissioner, said, “If the last 12 months tell us anything, it's that the place is broken, and needs to be fixed.” Senate President Mike Miller described the conflict at WSSC as a “cancer,” saying “Public confidence in the ability of this board to govern is nonexistent.” Miller suggested allowing the Governor to appoint WSSC commissioners, but told the Gazette that “he does not want to give the power to a Republican.” Legislative proposals to bring the agency under state control failed in 2005, in part due to opposition from Doug Duncan and Jack Johnson.

My informants tell me that the Prince George’s commissioners are still focused on controlling contracting, while the Montgomery commissioners prefer to have that function under the control of the General Manager. That is one of the biggest obstacles to the hiring of a new General Manager to replace long-departed Andrew Brunhart, who famously warned that WSSC’s aging pipes could explode “like a missile.” It may also be an impediment to the approval of a capital program. After all, if the right contractors are not performing the work, why have any work at all?

And so Jack Johnson’s appointees continue to run amok throughout WSSC. When are Prince George’s County voters going to run amok against their entrenched political oligarchy?