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Archive for December 15th, 2009

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

By Bill Myers

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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Twitter Tapping

Editorial from the New York Times

The government is increasingly monitoring Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites for tax delinquents, copyright infringers and political protesters. A public interest group has filed a lawsuit to learn more about this monitoring, in the hope of starting a national discussion and modifying privacy laws as necessary for the online era.

Law enforcement is not saying a lot about its social surveillance, but examples keep coming to light. The Wall Street Journal reported this summer that state revenue agents have been searching for tax scofflaws by mining information on MySpace and Facebook. In October, the F.B.I. searched the New York home of a man suspected of helping coordinate protests at the Group of 20 meeting in Pittsburgh by sending out messages over Twitter.

In some cases, the government appears to be engaged in deception. The Boston Globe recently quoted a Massachusetts district attorney as saying that some police officers were going undercover on Facebook as part of their investigations.

Wired magazine reported last month that In-Q-Tel, an investment arm of the Central Intelligence Agency, has put money into Visible Technologies, a software company that crawls across blogs, online forums, and open networks like Twitter and YouTube to monitor what is being said.

This month the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law sued the Department of Defense, the C.I.A. and other federal agencies under the Freedom of Information Act to learn more about their use of social networking sites.

The suit seeks to uncover what guidelines these agencies have about this activity, including information about whether agents are permitted to use fake identities or to engage in subterfuge, such as tricking people into accepting Facebook friend requests.

Privacy law was largely created in the pre-Internet age, and new rules are needed to keep up with the ways people communicate today. Much of what occurs online, like blog posting, is intended to be an open declaration to the world, and law enforcement is within its rights to read and act on what is written. Other kinds of communication, particularly in a closed network, may come with an expectation of privacy. If government agents are joining social networks under false pretenses to spy without a court order, for example, that might be crossing a line. [emphasis mine]

A national conversation about social networking and other forms of online privacy is long overdue. The first step toward having it is for the public to know more about what is currently being done. Making the federal government answer these reasonable Freedom of Information Act requests would be a good start.

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