City Paper is not for tourists
Recently unsealed documents in a lawsuit brought by the D.C. Office of the Attorney General against a digital sign company reveal the company’s internal efforts to skirt the District’s signage restrictions. The documents, which were made public in late September, also reiterate ties between Digi Outdoor Media’s former CEO, Don MacCord, who is currently in federal prison for crimes related to his work at Digi, and his buddy, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans.
Among the unsealed records is a one-page document written by MacCord that describes his previous success using Evans to help revise D.C. sign regulations “so that no other sign companies could come in and compete for locations or try to obtain new permits.” Ultimately, MacCord sought to profit off what he believed was a loophole in D.C.’s sign regulations that would allow his company to install LED advertisements around town.
“We were able to achieve a unanimous vote on the legislation and had the chairman of the financial committee, Council Member Evans, personally endorse our new sign program and become a strong advocate for what we are working on today,” MacCord wrote.
MacCord pleaded guilty in federal court in September 2018 to charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud stemming from his role as Digi Outdoor Media’s CEO. The company later became a joint venture called Digi Outdoor Communications, then changed its name to Lumen Eight Media Group to distance itself from MacCord.
In April, MacCord was sentenced to 30 months in prison and ordered to pay about $1.4 million in restitution. He’s scheduled to be released in 2021, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
Evans is now the target of a federal law enforcement investigation related to his relationship with MacCord and clients of his private consulting business. A spokesperson for Lumen Eight tells LL the company will fully cooperate with all investigations and declined to comment further.
The civil lawsuit in D.C. has dragged on since August 2016. The attorney general’s office and Digi have each asked the judge to rule whether the company can keep the signs it already installed, and continue to put up more, or whether they must be removed.
The OAG argues that Digi installed signs on the outsides of buildings without permits, tried to conceal its efforts—sometimes by literally covering them with vinyl sheets—and tried to cash in on MacCord’s relationship with Evans to “save the sign scheme and close the market to any competitors,” according to the office’s motion for summary judgment.
Digi (now Lumen), in its motion, argues that an exemption in the District’s building code for signs “within a building” allowed it to install the signs on the exterior of buildings, as long as they were beneath an overhang or generally within the building’s footprint. The company also argues that a 2016 emergency rule that prohibited the company from installing its signs was not properly enacted.
The two sides will make their cases in court to Judge Florence Pan on October 28.
The OAG argues in court documents that MacCord was aware of the District’s sign restrictions as early as 2010. His strategy, the OAG believes, was to quickly install the signs around the District without applying for permits and hope the government didn’t notice.
If the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), the agency in charge of issuing permits and enforcing signage regulations, tried to force him to take the signs down, MacCord would claim that he had property rights, giving him standing to sue the District, the OAG argues in court records.
“The Office of the Attorney General believes its case is strong because it rests on a straightforward reading of the sign code,” an OAG spokesperson writes in an emailed statement. “Lumen Eight actively concealed its actions to evade longstanding permitting requirements. We are confident the District will prevail in Court.”
In one portion of the unsealed records, D.C.’s then-acting Chief Building Official Jatinder Khokhar emailed Digi’s lawyer on Aug. 17, 2016, to ask that the company remove an LED display sign it had installed at 111 Massachusetts Avenue NW. If Digi failed to remove the sign, DCRA would do it for them and send them the bill, the building official wrote.
Digi’s lawyer, Edward Donohue, forwarded the request to MacCord, who wrote back: “Ed you need to let them know that we will bring every type of suit possible against them and that Douglas Jemal and Digi forbid them from setting foot on this property.” Jemal, a wealthy developer in D.C., owns the Massachusetts Ave. NW building through his company, “Jemal’s Darth Vader LLC.” (Generally, Digi installed signs after getting lease agreements from property owners.)
Less than 20 minutes later, MacCord forwarded the DCRA email to Evans and lobbyist David Wilmot.
“David and Jack, DCRA is getting very out of line,” MacCord wrote. “We need to get them to back off. Please read the email chain and let me know what you guys think.”
Evans, writing from his personal AOL email account, responded with instructions for MacCord to call his chief of staff, Schannette Grant.
“Will do Sir. See you Saturday,” MacCord replied.
Evans did not respond to LL’s emailed questions.
Six days before DCRA weighed in, MacCord and Digi cut a check to Evans’ private firm, NSE Consulting LLC, for $25,000—a scanned image of which is part of the unsealed materials. The check is one of two that Digi gave to Evans, which were first reported by the Washington Post. Digi also issued Evans’ consulting firm 200,000 shares of stock in the company. Evans has previously said he returned the checks and the stock, the Post reported.
On the same day that MacCord was fending off emails from DCRA, his associates were planning their installation schedule, which included working at night and on weekends, the unsealed emails show. The OAG argues in its motion that the after-hours work was a deliberate effort to avoid DCRA inspectors.
That strategy came right from the top. In response to an associate’s emailed question on Aug. 22, 2016, about how to respond to DCRA’s order to stop installing signs MacCord wrote “Ignore and get it up. Do everything after hours.”
By December 2016, Evans proposed emergency legislation that would have nixed the OAG’s lawsuit and grandfathered in MacCord’s signs. Evans later withdrew the bill when it failed to gain support.
Another piece of evidence the OAG uses to support its argument that MacCord and his company lobbied Evans in order to save the sign business is an email from Digi’s then-CFO Shannon Doyle asking the company’s employees to bundle campaign contributions for Virginia Democrat LuAnn Bennett, who lost to U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock in the 2016 general election.
“David Wilmot and Jack Evans have asked that we each personally contribute as much as possible to this campaign,” Doyle wrote. “The ask is $1k and its short notice but really need to make it happen. Please fill out the attached sheet and overnight with check to Don at 500 L St NE Washington DC 20002. Thanks.”
Legal troubles seem to have quelled MacCord’s monomaniacal desire to plaster D.C. with signs and get rich doing so. In March of 2019, before he was sentenced, MacCord wrote to US District Judge William Alsup to beg for mercy. In the letter, MacCord informed the judge of his small apartment and of his fall from digital sign mogul to Uber and Lyft driver.
He boasted of his early business success and compared himself to “a champion quarterback” who “had the gift of looking out over the entire landscape and spotting the winning play.”
MacCord’s letter shifted some blame to his alcoholic father, his abusive mother, and to an ex-wife, whose irresponsible spending, he wrote, drove his desperation for success. He also acknowledged that he forged documents, lied in a deposition with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and broke the law.
“I stand before you embarrassed and humiliated,” he wrote. “I broke the law and did harm to my investors and my family. I am shocked that I acted so recklessly when I have been blessed with so much. There is no excuse for my illegal actions and I am prepared to accept the punishment I deserve.”