The interim director of the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences, appointed last year to revamp the District’s troubled crime lab, has been serving in the temporary position for far longer than D.C. law allows. And according to that law, he’s now ineligible to continue receiving his salary.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser named Anthony Crispino interim director of the agency on May 28, 2021, after the loss of the agency’s accreditation and the resignation of the former director amid an investigation into mismanagement.
Bowser had 180 days — about six months — to submit a formal nomination to the D.C. Council. The D.C. Code also forbids spending District money “to compensate any person serving in the position” if the mayor fails to submit a nomination within the 180-day limit.
The crime lab is not the only troubled D.C. agency where the mayor is flouting the law on nominees.
The Office of Unified Communications, which acts as the District’s 911 call center and was the subject of a scathing audit last year, has been led by a series of temporary directors for more than a year and a half with no nomination submitted by the mayor, also calling into question the District’s authority to continue paying the office’s current acting chief.
The measure forbidding compensation for appointees who serve past the 180-day limit has never been enforced, and there has never been a serious attempt to claw back an appointee’s salary, but council member Charles Allen told WTOP the intent of the law is clear and the possibility of withholding pay in these cases is a “very real and imminent risk.”
Allen, who has oversight of both agencies, said he reached out to the mayor’s office several weeks ago about the plan for moving nominations for the two agencies forward and has yet to hear back.
“These are two incredibly important agencies where we need to know — the city needs to know; the council needs to know; I need to know — what are the leadership plans for each of them? Who is going to be the person who is making those tough decisions?” Allen told WTOP.
Allen said he understands that finding a permanent director for DFS within the six-month timeline may have been particularly difficult as the agency undergoes what he called a “full rebuild” since its loss of accreditation.
“But we also then need to have a very clear plan being laid out by the mayor’s office,” he added.
WTOP began inquiring of the mayor’s office about the law on nominees in late June. Bowser’s office declined to make any on-the-record statements, and did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said the mayor’s failure to submit nominees is a serious issue.
“Not having permanent directors creates some instability in these agencies, and where these agencies have been suffering some criticism, that’s all the more problematic,” Mendelson said in an interview with WTOP. “There are many reasons why it’s important that these nominations be made. It’s not a minor thing.”
Mendelson said failing to submit nominations frustrates the council’s ability to perform meaningful oversight, denies the public the opportunity to weigh in on proposed leadership and could also throw into question the legitimacy of any controversial decisions or actions taken by an agency whose acting head is serving in the position for longer than D.C. law allows.
More than a year
The 180-day time limit for the mayor to nominate a DFS director arrived Nov. 24, 2021. As of this week, it’s been more than 430 days since the position became vacant.
Part of the delay in nominating a permanent DFS director could also stem from the fact that the current interim director is ineligible for the position.
Under the D.C. legislation creating the independent forensic agency, the director must have an advanced science degree and a minimum of six years of experience in the forensic science field.
Crispino, the acting chief, is an attorney with no prior forensic experience.
Allen earlier this summer introduced a bill to overhaul DFS; it would broaden the qualifications for the director position to allow candidates with a law or business degree — clearing the way for Crispino to serve in the permanent position if he were nominated by Bowser.
However, that bill isn’t expected to get a vote until the council returns from recess in mid-September at the earliest.
At OUC, the 911 center, the director position has been vacant for more than 550 days with no nomination submitted by Bowser.
In Jan. 2021, Karima Holmes, the last D.C. Council-confirmed director, stepped down amid growing scrutiny of errors at the call center that had resulted in emergency crews being dispatched to the wrong addresses. An audit later found the agency failed to meet national standards.
Bowser named Cleo Subido interim director of the office in Jan. 2021, and Subido continued serving in the role for more than a year with no nomination submitted — far longer than the 180-day time limit.
In Feb. 2022, Bowser announced she was rehiring Holmes to serve as acting director. No nomination has been submitted to the council yet.
Adding teeth to the law
The 1978 D.C. Confirmation Act governs the appointment of agency directors and other positions in D.C. government. Under the law, the mayor is to submit nominations to the D.C. Council for a 90-day review period, during which the council can either approve or disapprove nominations. (If the council doesn’t take any action, a nomination is deemed approved after 90 days).
However, the law was updated several times in the 1990s beginning during the administration of Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, when council members grew concerned that the pervasive number of holdover appointments and unconfirmed acting agency directors was impairing the performance of the D.C. government, according to a Washington Post article from the time.
The law was last updated in the late 1990s, requiring the mayor to submit nominations for agency director positions within 180 days of a vacancy or the creation of a new agency. The law also added some teeth, forbidding the use of District money to pay acting directors if the mayor fails to make a nomination within the 180-day time limit.
“The separation of powers limits what the council can do,” said Mendelson, the council chairman. “The council can’t make these appointments … So that’s why those measures were put into the law — to try to give more leverage to force the mayor to act.”
Clash over nominations
While the law on mayoral nominees has been on the books for decades now, it has been frequently ignored by mayors across multiple administrations.
When she was a council member in the 1990s, D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson helped rewrite the law on mayoral appointees to strengthen the council’s role, and she said the issue remains crucial.
“The council has a critical role to play in appointing leaders in the D.C. government,” she told WTOP in an email. “Directors obviously report up the chain to the mayor but they also report to the council as the elected body closest to residents and taxpayers. Councilmembers, via statute, set agency priorities and they approve agency budgets.”
There are further steps the council could take, she said, including amending the Confirmation Act to tighten the time frame in which an acting director can serve, and withholding spending authority absent council approval. The council could also change the way the OUC and DFS directors are selected, she said, removing the responsibility from the mayor’s hands and placing it with an oversight board.
“The council isn’t powerless here,” she said.
There’s a long history of D.C. lawmakers clashing with the mayor’s office over nominations.
In 1994, some council members called for the resignation of Jasper F. Burnette, the then-acting head of the Department of Public and Assisted Housing, who had served beyond his temporary term.
“They are violating the law and he (Burnette) should be out of there,” then-council member Jim Nathanson told The Washington Post. “Anything Burnette signed off on is invalid and therefore illegal.”
In 1999, then-council member Charlene Drew Jarvis demanded then-Mayor Anthony Williams’ interim deputy mayor for economic development step down after serving for longer than 180 days.
“This is a mandatory exit,” Jarvis was quoted in The Washington Business Journal. “You can’t just sit there in government when your appointment has expired.”
The official, Doug Patton, resigned a few months later.