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Dr. Thomas Farley’s D.C. Health Appointment Sparks Controversy

Much to the chagrin of health policy advocates, former Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley secured a top role at DC Health’s Community Health Administration [CHA], just months after admitting he ordered the cremation and disposal of MOVE bombing victims’ remains.

Some people, like Ambrose Lane Jr., criticized not only Farley’s role in the racially-charged scandal that cost him the health commissioner job but also what has been described as Farley’s ineffective COVID-19 mitigation strategy serving that role.

In anticipation of an upcoming meeting where he plans to press the issue, Lane and others continue to question D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and DC Health Director LaQuandra S. Nesbitt’s rationale for allowing someone of Farley’s ilk to have jurisdiction over matters concerning District residents’ health outcomes.

“If Mayor Bowser didn’t know, they didn’t do their due diligence in hiring Dr. Farley. If she did know, then obviously she’s willing to overlook what he did in Philadelphia,” said Lane, founder and chair of the Health Alliance Network, an entity that advocates for health equity and chronic disease reduction.

“It’s not a good move for D.C.,” Lane said. “This judgment is highly questionable. There are qualified African Americans out there who have dealt with chronic disease and some of the other things the Community Health Administration has done.”

An Employment History Mired in Scandal 

As Philadelphia health commissioner, Farley approved the city’s partnership with the organization Philly Fighting COVID despite it being guided by questionable leadership with limited public health experience. In the months after that contract started, calls by Philadelphia elected officials for the CEO’s resignation increased after Philly Fighting COVID withheld and lost demographic data and abandoned community groups who relied on them for free tests.

Farley later ended the relationship with Philly Fighting COVID upon learning that it had changed to a for-profit organization. In May, in the aftermath of his admission about the MOVE bombing victims’ remains, Farley resigned from his post at the behest of Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney (D).

On November 8, when Farley started his role as the Community Health Administration’s senior deputy director, Black Lives Matter DC posted a tweet highlighting DC Health’s announcement of the controversial hire.

In subsequent tweets, they posted articles detailing the events of May 13, 1985 when the city of Philadelphia dropped bombs on a house occupied by MOVE, a Black liberation group, after an hours-long standoff. Black Lives Matter DC also alluded to the circumstances of Farley’s resignation.

DC Health released a statement saying Farley’s skills will push the agency further along in its goal to make the District the healthiest city in the country.

A DC Health representative declined to answer inquiries about the nature of the hiring process and the level of consideration given to Farley’s professional experience.

A Contentious Debate 

On Monday, Bowser weighed in on the topic of Farley’s suitability for the job.

“That was an agency hire. I’m sure that when they researched their selection they dug deeply,” she said. “I am confident the agency, when they made their selection, chose an individual who they knew could do the job at this level.”

The CHA’s senior deputy director’s responsibilities involve promoting an array of services to District residents and developing a comprehensive health prevention strategy. They would also be responsible for planning, implementing and monitoring programs that provide access to medical homes and preventive health services. In the health director’s absence, the senior deputy director would represent DC Health at professional and civic meetings.

Dr. Yolandra Hancock, a longtime pediatrician and advocate for fighting childhood obesity, said District government officials must examine the totality of a candidate’s reputation when vetting them for roles requiring interaction with the public.

In her two decades as a public health professional, Dr. Hancock has served as a CHA community health partner, referred patients to CHA programs and worked within a CHA-affiliated group that collaborated with the community to address issues related to chronic disease and food disparities.

In her experiences, Hancock, like Farley in his days as New York City commissioner, organized against producers of sugary drinks. However, the similarities end there for Hancock who criticized Farley’s hiring given his documented treatment of the Black community.

“When someone like Dr. Farley with his history is appointed, it’s disrespectful and a slap in the face. There’s nothing community [oriented] about what his reputation brings to the table,” Hancock said.

“For anyone working in government, you have to really understand how the people you hire will engage and work with your community. These are the things you prioritize when you talk about people affecting change,” she said.

WI staff writer James Wright contributed to this story.

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