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Council Releases Report on Eviction Attempt


City Council's investigation into Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's aborted eviction of the School Board from City Hall Sept. 21 is over, yielding no concrete answers, raising quite a few questions and some stinging conclusions.

Laws were intentionally skirted or broken, procurement policy was ignored, vast amounts of money were spent improperly and the Wilder administration has maintained a fortified wall of defense against nearly all attempts to find answers, the investigative committee concludes, pegging the final cost of the aborted move at nearly $1 million.

And even months after the fact, laws continued to be broken, the report says, with the servicing of an illegally signed lease at 3600 W. Broad St. -- the intended location of the School Board offices -- which now houses three other city departments.

The report, released Monday after seven months of ratcheting political tensions between City Council and the Wilder administration -- at one point committee member Ellen Robertson called Chief Administrative Officer Sheila Hill-Christian a "criminal" -- lays bare the facts as the committee found them.

"We can do better than this," says Council President Bill Pantele. "I'll be calling on the administration to reverse [some of the illegal] transactions … by returning the money to the accounts where they belong.

"I'm not going to speculate about anything beyond giving the administration an opportunity to correct the situation."

Though the report reveals much - an plans to put all public documents in a place where citizens can review them - it was unable to link most acts with the individuals who initiated them. Lacking such important details, the report stops short of recommending further action. Instead, the ad hoc committee made up of four City Council members, passes the potato to the full City Council "for its deliberation."

Over the months of the investigation Hill-Christian declined most requests by the committee for answers, at one point writing a letter to committee chairman Chris Hilbert refusing to direct mid-level bureaucrats to appear before the committee. Her letter, cited in the report, called the request "simply subterfuge."

And then there's the matter of the lease of 3600 W. Broad St.

On April 28, the mayor's office announced that it had moved 43 employees of from three departments -- justice services, parks and recreation and the city attorney's office -- into the building on West Broad "in a renegotiated lease arrangement that saved nearly $400,000."

The initial lease for the building, signed by then-acting chief administrative officer Harry Black, "was not a valid contractual agreement on behalf of the City because the Council's ordinance requiring a lease at City Hall for RPS was upheld by the Court and because the authority to approve leases clearly is the prerogative of the Council," the report states.

The report calls inappropriate more than $320,000 in payments made to the building's owner through February. "These payments were not properly authorized expenditures as the lease was not properly authorized," the report says.

Thalhimer Commercial Real Estate, the leasing agent for the building, has previously said it would sue to enforce the lease. The report makes no recommendation on the recovery of money used to pay rent between September and February.

In the end, lease payments were a significant percentage of what the report calls "total traceable costs incurred by the city as a result of this failed eviction." The report's total number, $974,778, does not include costs to Richmond Public Schools for legal fees, lost productivity or payroll costs for employees -- estimated at the time by a schools official at $116,600.

Among the committee's more concrete findings: The funds used to pay for the move were misappropriated, and that the accounting and procedures used to misappropriate that money violated city procurement procedures.

"The failed move does not meet the definition of an emergency nor was there a declaration of emergency sent to the Department of Procurement within the time frame prescribed by the Administrative Policies," the report reads. "Over 50% [sic] of the transactions processed for the attempted eviction were in violation of the policies as promulgated by the City's Department of Procurement."

The report, citing Richmond Circuit Court Judge Margaret Spencer's November ruling on the legality of council's now infamous $10-a-year lease agreement with schools, calls the eviction "a direct violation of city law."

Among other conclusions or lingering questions included in the report investigating the Sept. 21 eviction attempt:

  • Expenditures were approved by persons without proper authorization.

  • Expenditures made relating to the attempted eviction and the lease of 3600 West Broad St. appear to be a willful failure to comply with the provisions of the budget ordinance.

  • Whether the administration sought legal advice before signing the lease for 3600 West Broad Street. (A Style Weekly investigation of administration records shows that the Wilder administration disregarded advice from Jane Farrara, the city's director for real estate, who advised that the lease required City Council approval.)

  • It is unclear who authorized the transfer of funds from the "Ernesto Repayment" account to the "Interim Transition Costs" account.

  • A Washington, D.C., accounting firm not involved in the move, Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates, received $76,959.11 from the Ernesto Repayment account funneled through the Interim Transition Cost account used by administration to pay for move costs, which may have been illegal.

    Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring says he's not yet seen the report, but expressed a willingness to look at individuals who may have violated the law.

    "It will be nice to be able to get answers to questions," Herring says, anticipating an improved environment for further fact finding by his office once the battle between Wilder's office and City Council is taken out of the equation.

    And Herring says he is willing, if necessary, to subpoena for answers if simple questioning of those involved and their lawyers doesn't yield the needed answers.

  • Read the report.
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