gone through and endured, and yet somehow kept going, not
knowing what the next day would bring!”
“I have often wondered what kept me going all these years,
and still keeps me going as I am about to retire and embark
on the next chapter in my life.”
What is it about public service that was such a passion for
You could have easily been on Wall Street making tons on
The fundamental point here is that America has a fascination for me not for its millionaires and billionaires, but for its
great public figures like (Abraham) Lincoln, (Franklin D)
Roosevelt and also, of course, Washington, and also its great
intellectual figures like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson,
Henry David Thoreau.
The real strength of America is among these people.
But the orientation I had for public service as opposed to
making money is because I believe the library that I had
gone to in India in the little town where I was born and the
books that I read from Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography
and others, (K M) Munshi and Indulal Yagnik; they were deeply devoted to public service.
It was all about how can you contribute to the larger good,
and that stayed with me.
And even though the field that I selected — accounting,
which is as practical as you can get — the question to me was
how can I use that accounting to benefit public service, and
that is what I’ve done.
My understanding of accounting and taxation basically
helped me educate people on the Hill about how taxes are
being avoided and what you can do to prevent this tax avoidance.
After that two-decade stint at the GAO, you brought that
same passion to the District, which was then in the financial
In the same way in the District, the CFO basically has
purview of an entire city.
We have a $10 billion gross budget — $10 billion coming
in, $10 billion going out.
So, you control revenues, tax collection, estimation, comptrollership, budgeting, treasury operations, borrowing
money, and even lottery.
Anything and everything to do with the money must come
to the CFO — whether you want to pass as legislation or build
a stadium, or build a big hotel.
So, people come with all these notions of doing good, but at
the end of the day, it has to be financially viable and feasible.
That’s a massive responsibility, particularly since you have
to reckon with the politicians and their pet projects…
My 16 years in the District’s financial theater, 13 as CFO
managing its $12 billion annual budget, have not been without difficulties.
Practically every day has been a challenge.
Managing a demoralized tax office staff early during my
tenure was particularly daunting.
A 20-year $50 million embezzlement scheme involving
property tax refunds is but one example of the kind of corrupt
practices I have had to confront and root out.
Yet, all financial issues in the District — from the fiscal sufficiency of a minor legislative proposal to the building of a
$530 million baseball stadium, from allowing gay couples to
file joint tax returns to approving a ground-breaking teach-
The Financial Wizard
COURTES Y: NAT WAR GANDHI
Natwar Gandhi, left, with Henry Kissinger.
ers’ union contract — the buck starts and stops at the door of
I always tell my people — and I have about 1,200 people
working for me in the city — that you guys sit in your cubicle
doing your financial stuff, collecting taxes, etc and you think
But I tell them I know because what you do here will make
it possible for the mayor to provide a program for the homeless, for a welfare child, for a school program, a specialized
children’s program — and all that is possible only when there
When the city was literally bankrupt with all these hundreds of millions of dollars of deficit, they had to cut services.
All the stuff that should have been done, were not done,
primarily because there was no money.
So, when you collect taxes, when you stabilize the finances,
when you are able to borrow money at a cheap rate, then you
make it possible for policy makers to provide the services —
to take care of the poor and those who are in need.
And the city does have a need.
I believe one-third of Washington, DC is Medicaid eligible
— 200,000 people are Medicaid eligible, the City’s adult illiteracy is 36 percent, meaning that one out of three residents
cannot read or write at a level where they can get a job.
So, if you want to educate those people, we have to make
sure the city has money.
Look at any health indices — hypertension, diabetes, infant
mortality — we are at the bottom in the country.
So, to take care of those people that will need money, lots of
I just gave an additional $190 million for the remainder of
2013 in our revenue estimation and the mayor said $100 million will be put into affordable housing.
So, once again, that is possible only when you have stable
finances and that is how you use your skills to do that.
An ancient Athenian oath says:
‘We will ever strive for the ideals and sacred things of the
city, both alone and with many.
We will unceasingly seek to quicken the sense of public duty.
We will revere and obey the city’s laws.
We will transmit this city not only not less, but greater, bet-
ter, and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.’
This has been my creed and this is what I have tried to do
over the last 16 years in Washington, DC.
As you retire — apparently they have still not been able to
find a suitable successor and I believe the Mayor has implored
you to stay on a little longer till there is someone to fill your
shoes — and reflect on your tenure, how much of a sense of
fulfillment do you feel that you have been able to make a tangible and significant difference in the city that was virtually
bankrupt and also called the Murder Capital of the World?
An enormous sense of satisfaction.
First of all, professionally, I have never done more important work in my life than what I have done in the city — being
able to stabilize the city’s finances, preside over a $10-billion
financial enterprise, help elected leadership to accomplish
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