DC CFO Natwar Gandhi Resigns . . . for Love?

The District’s chief financial officer says he’s leaving his position for personal reasons.

By: Harry Jaffe

Panna Naik and Nat Gandhi.

Nat Gandhi resigned today as the District’s chief financial officer. Was he hounded out of office by critics? In fear of investigations? Weakened by negative media?

“I have a new love in my life,” he tells Washingtonian.

In a rare and revealing interview with a public figure who’s built a reputation as a cold counter of beans, Gandhi says he’s ready for a break after working since 1957. He’s spent 15 of those years in the DC government; he’s been CFO since 2000.

“I want to do something different with my life,” he says. “I will be 73 in October. I want to travel.”

Gandhi says his “new love” is Panna Naik, an Indian poet whom his family has known for many years. Her husband passed away two years ago. Gandhi’s wife, Nalini, died in 2009. Gandhi traveled to India last month, decided while there to step down, and told his senior staff of his plans when he returned.

“The city is in good shape,” Gandhi says. “It’s as good a time as any.”

Indeed, the District is amassing surpluses while many other local governments are facing fiscal distress.

The timing begs the question, however, of why Gandhi insisted he be reappointed to a third five-year term last June. Why not alert the mayor he had had a change in life and might be moving on? His new relationship, he told aides, had not yet blossomed, and it wasn’t until he traveled to his native India that he was moved to make a change.

Gandhi’s letter to Mayor Vincent Gray said his resignation would be effective June 1. It was received with a combination of sadness and hosannas from council members. City council finance chair Jack Evans wrote, “Much of our success in maintaining fiscal discipline can be attributed to his leadership.”

His leadership has been compromised in the eyes of some. A series of articles in the Washington Post questioned why Gandhi’s office had declined to make public internal audits that criticized procedures in his real estate assessment division.

“That didn’t bother me,” Gandhi says. “In this business, if I can be upset by a few articles in the media, I don’t belong.

“I survived Harriette Walters,” he adds, referring to the tax assessment manager who was charged in 2007 with stealing nearly $50 million in fraudulent tax refunds. She’s serving a 17-year prison term. Some called for Gandhi’s resignation then, but then-mayor Adrian Fenty backed him.

Tom Lindenfeld, a political consultant who’s among Gandhi’s critics, says, “He was brought down by secrecy. He tried to manage a part of the government that needed to be more transparent.”

“That’s not true,” Gandhi says. He sticks by his view that internal audits are designed to stay within his office to fix internal problems. “I wanted the auditors to work collaboratively. They didn’t understand.”

The city council understood the bad political optics of keeping any audits under wrap and ordered the internal reports be made public.

By announcing his resignation four months before he steps down, Gandhi gives the city time to find a replacement.

“The best thing would be a national search to find someone with strong qualifications,” Lindenfeld says. “The worst thing would be to bring in an insider. We need real change.”

Gandhi says he doesn’t plan to change his address, though Naik lives in Philadelphia. Gandhi’s children and grandchildren live in the DC area.

“I will be going back and forth,” he says.