Washington Post

The District's Deadbeat Dodge

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, January 11, 2003; Page A21
Washington Post

In a city where the majority of births are to unmarried women, last May's announcement by D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams raised a lot of hopes. The District government, the mayor told the Fourth Annual International Fatherhood Conference meeting in Washington, was going to unveil an initiative to help absent fathers play a more supportive role in the lives of their children. What's more, the mayor had indicated only a few days earlier that he was going to seek jail time for parents who hadn't made child support payments in more than a year or who owed more than $5,000 in back payments.

No telling what Roscoe Grant Jr. thought of the mayor's performance. Chances are Grant would have been rolling in the aisle or at least cracking up inside. Grant, a District resident, is, as best can be discerned, about as fearful of D.C. child support enforcement as the Pentagon is of Guinea.

Here's why:

For years, the mother and aunt of Octavious Williams tried to get Grant to recognize and then do right by his son, Octavious. They even went to city agencies for help but got nowhere. It wasn't until the family filed a paternity suit against him that Grant paid attention. And even then, it took a paternity test that came back positive to make Grant own up to the claim that he was Octavious Williams's old man. Yet it fell to a magistrate judge to force Grant to do the right thing. Last July, the judge ordered him to pay $968 every two weeks to Octavious.

Roscoe Grant is no stranger to such court proceedings. He also fathered a daughter in 1997 in neighboring Prince George's County. Once again, it took a suit by the mother in 1998 and a subsequent paternity test establishing him as the father to force him to agree in court to pay $300 a month in child support. But Grant's knowledge of child-support legal procedures rests on more than his own experience as a D.C. man twice sued successfully for child support by two different women.

Roscoe Grant is the deputy director of the Child Support Enforcement division of the D.C. Corporation Counsel's Office. That makes him the District government's second-highest-ranking child support official.

Now, recall that fatherhood conference. Is that ol' Tony Williams a scream or what?

Why, you may now be asking, is Roscoe Grant still in that $100,000 city job? For the benefit of those who are uninitiated in the ways of the D.C. government, Roscoe Grant is wired -- as in well-connected. But his is also a heart-rending rags-to-riches story. A $3.17-an-hour laborer in 1972, Grant rose through the ranks to become president of Local 631 of the American Federation of Government Employees. His labor activism caught on with then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, who made him director of her speakers bureau. That meant, among other things, managing her public engagements and bridging the gap between her and the city's rank and file.

Working his way around the government, Grant next landed a spot, in 1995, in the child support office, where he was promoted five years later and made deputy director for child support operations. Today he helps oversee a division with a staff of 180 and a $20.3 million budget to enforce court orders, chase down absentee parents and look for assets of parents who owe support.

Is this a great city or what?

In 1998, with Kelly off the scene, Marion Barry on his way out and three council members vying for the mayor's job, Grant had the good sense, or political instinct, to sign on with the "Draft Tony Williams" movement. Years later, the association appears to be standing Grant in good stead. He's still sitting pretty.

Some folks think he should be relieved of his duties as deputy director of child support operations, as he has twice been taken to court and declared the father of children who weren't receiving support. Jackie Pinckney, a child support advocate, is one such person. She contends that officials in high positions "should be held to a higher standard" and that the failure of a child support official to pay child support until forced to do so by the court is, at the least, "unethical." In an e-mail message to the mayor's chief of staff, Kelvin Robinson, last summer, Pinckney urged Tony Williams to take action. She also pressed Robert Rigsby, then the D.C. corporation counsel and Grant's ultimate boss, to remove him from such a sensitive post.

Pinckney might as well have been talking to rocks.

In an interview last June, Rigsby acknowledged that Grant isn't the best person to assist mothers seeking financial support from noncustodial fathers of their children. But Rigsby, an affable lawyer with little stomach for making waves, didn't take Grant off the job. And good fortune took Rigsby off his. Robert Rigsby is now a judge on the D.C. Superior Court bench -- a perfect fit.

Before leaving office, however, Rigsby asked the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance to open an ethics probe into Grant's behavior (citing a possible conflict of interest if the Corporation Counsel's Office did the job). The request got lost in the mail, so on Aug. 13, his successor, interim Corporation Counsel Arabella Teal, sent a second request for a campaign finance advisory opinion on Grant.

This week, I inquired about the status of the campaign finance office's opinion and was told by Peter Lavallee, the corporation counsel's public information officer, that while an advisory opinion had been received, Teal "respectfully declined to identify the date" or to discuss the contents because "the information is privileged."

That, city hall journalists will tell you, is the old familiar dance move called "The D.C. Dodge."

Here's the real deal: The campaign finance office declined to render an opinion, arguing that Grant's case was not within its jurisdiction because the city's standards of conduct refer to on-the-job behavior and not to an employee's after-hours morality. The campaign finance office did, however, tell Teal that Grant should recuse himself from any paternity case in which he is charged by a mother with fathering her child. (Duh.)

No fools, the campaign finance folks suspected that Teal wanted them to do her job. They wouldn't bite.

The upshot? The mayor is free to keep whispering sweet nothings to abandoned mothers and deploring their unfortunate state. Teal gets to keep playing interim corporation counsel. And the District continues with its woeful record of collecting support payments: In 2000, it collected payments in 12 percent of the city's 127,890 child support cases, compared with the national average of 42 percent.

Oh, yes, and Roscoe Grant continues pulling down his 100 grand, thanks to D.C. taxpayers.

Don't you just love it?

e-mail: kingc@washpost.com

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