Opinion: A Train Wreck Nomination

Opinion: A Train Wreck Nomination

Reforming the way top-level county appointees are vetted

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Section 215 of Montgomery County’s charter provides that the county executive nominates the heads of county departments and principal offices as well as members of boards and commissions. The County Council then must review and confirm them.

Normally the process works smoothly.  The executive branch is responsible for vetting nominees.  The council interviews those who lead departments and principal offices but usually defers to the executive in assembling the administration’s team.

But that process, which has worked pretty well for many years, recently resulted in a train wreck.  It’s now up to the County Council to clean up the debris.

The train wreck resulted when the county executive nominated Vennard Wright, who had worked in information technology positions in Prince George’s County government and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, to lead the county’s Department of Technology Services.

In fiscal 2019, the department had a $42 million approved budget and 166 full-time equivalent positions.  Questions by the council about Wright’s current work generated concerns about his fitness to lead the department and endangered his nomination, causing him to withdraw.  (Wright left open the possibility of reapplying.)  That’s not a sign of bad process; in fact, this part of the process worked well because the council took its interview responsibilities seriously.

It’s what the council didn’t know that made this a train wreck.

A perfunctory review of Maryland Judiciary Case Search, the state’s online courts record database, raises several issues.

Court records for an individual matching the name of the nominee show a bankruptcy (1996), two civil judgments in Maryland (both in 1996), a foreign civil judgment from Massachusetts (2001), a temporary restraining order (2005) and a tax lien by Prince George’s County (2007, paid in 2008).

A professional investigator would have used a Social Security number and an address list derived from credit application headers to verify whether these records indeed pertained to the nominee.  (I used to do this kind of work in the labor movement.)  But there’s enough from just 10 minutes of research to raise questions.

The tax lien filed by Prince George’s County.

The 2005 temporary restraining order would be of interest to any employment background investigator.

The plaintiff, Zegato Solutions Inc., is an information technology and engineering company based in Lanham.  In August 2005, Zegato filed for injunctive relief and a temporary restraining order in Prince George’s County Circuit Court against Vennard Wright of Clinton.  The temporary restraining order, which was approved by a judge five days after the case filing, enjoined the defendant from “any further use of or otherwise disclosing or distributing any proprietary information of property or trade secrets relating to software developed by [plaintiff]” and from “copying, duplicating, licensing, selling, distributing, publishing, leasing, renting or otherwise marketing any and all products containing, using and or substantially derived from proprietary information or property or trade secrets of plaintiff.”

The case was dismissed a month after filing.  Wright does not list employment with Zegato on the version of his resume that was supplied to the County Council, but he does list employment as Zegato’s director of research and development from January 2003 through June 2005 on his Linkedin profile.

The case header information by itself does not prove that Wright did anything wrong.  But a competent investigator would have obtained any court records not under seal and would have interviewed both Wright and his former employer to learn more.

Vennard Wright’s Linkedin profile showing employment by Zegato Solutions.

Bethesda Beat’s Dan Schere uncovered more information after the nominee withdrew.

First, the county’s chief administrative officer, Andrew Kleine, admitted to knowing about the bankruptcy but said it wasn’t disqualifying in his view.

Second, the nominee himself discussed the bankruptcy and said since then “he has had perfect credit and has not faced obstacles in gaining employment.”  (Up until a couple years ago, tax liens were listed on credit reports.)

Third, the nominee did not list Watts, Wright & Associates, a company named in the 2001 civil judgment and the 2007 tax lien, in the resume provided to the County Council.  According to the State Department of Assessments and Taxation, the name of the company’s owner matches the name of the nominee.  Assuming the records apply to the same person, there were no fewer than two material omissions from the resume seen by the council.

This company was referenced in a civil judgment and a tax lien under the name of a defendant matching the name of the executive branch’s nominee.

After the nominee withdrew, I contacted four sources inside the council building, all of whom had access to materials provided by the executive branch about the nominee, and asked whether they had knowledge of the court records.  All four sources said no.

In the executive branch’s nomination submission to the council, the chief administrative officer stated, “The purpose of this memo is to confirm that in making appointments for non-merit positions, our selection process utilizes thorough reference checks, criminal history, background checks, checks for wants and warrants, credit history and other inquiries appropriate to the position being filled.”

Let’s take the chief administrative officer at his word that the administration did indeed perform the referenced research.

Either the executive branch did an incomplete background check that did not uncover the information above or the executive branch knew about it and did not inform the council.

Neither scenario is a good one.  And that’s the point – this is not truly about Vennard Wright, who has some positive, qualifying work experience in his resume and on Linkedin.  It’s really about whether the council can trust the executive branch to share the results of its due diligence – whatever there is of it.

Going forward, it is now clear that the County Council must do its own background checks on nominees.  The council could either hire a private investigation firm to do them (there are a lot of those) or ask the state’s attorney, an elected official who does not report to the county executive, to handle them.

If the council does not adopt this reform, it is risking that a future nominee with similar questions will one day be approved without proper review.

If that happens, it won’t be the fault of the executive branch.  It will be the fault of the County Council.

Adam Pagnucco is a writer, researcher and consultant who is a former chief of staff at the County Council. He has worked in the labor movement and has had clients in labor, business and politics.

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