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Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans needs your help to pay his legal bills. The embattled lawmaker opened a legal defense committee earlier this week and is currently accepting donations—no more than $2,000, please.
But there’s a question about how exactly Evans will be allowed to spend any of the money he raises.
Last year, the D.C. Council passed a sweeping campaign finance reform bill aimed at fixing the so-called pay-to-play culture. But one of the more minor changes, which will go into effect this week, restricts how legal defense funds can be used.
The soon-to-be old law allowed public officials to use the funds to “defray the professional fees and costs for a public official’s legal defense to one or more civil, criminal, or administrative proceedings.”
Now the law clarifies that those civil, criminal, or administrative proceedings must arise “directly out of the conduct of a campaign, the election process, or the performance of the public official’s governmental activities and duties.”
Evans, who is D.C.’s longest serving councilmember, is potentially in deep trouble for mixing his private business with his public roles.
An investigation initiated by Metro’s ethics board found that Evans, its former chairman, “knowingly” violated the board’s ethical rules through a “pattern of conduct in which Evans attempted to and did help his friends and clients and served their interests, rather than the interests of WMATA.” Evans has since resigned in disgrace as chairman of the Metro board, but first he threatened Metro officials in an effort to suppress the investigation, the Washington Post first reported.
Evans is also the target of a federal law enforcement investigation. The feds have issued subpoenas to Evans’ private business clients and to the D.C. Council. Federal agents raided his Georgetown home in June.
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And Evans’ bank account is (or will be) $20,000 lighter after he was hit with a fine from the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA). Evans, via his chief of staff, sent two emailed letters from official government accounts, one in 2015 and another in 2018, seeking work with legal and lobbying firms in the District. In the letters, Evans pimped his position as a councilmember and then-chair of the Metro board.
The settlement agreement with BEGA specifically says that Evans violated the Council’s code of conduct by “using Council time or government resources for purposes other than official business or other government-approved or sponsored activities; requesting his Chief of Staff to perform during regular working hours personal services on his behalf not related to her official government functions and activities; and knowingly using the prestige of his office or public position for his private gain.”
LL has acknowledged before that he is no lawyer, but it seems as though most of Evans’ troubles stem from his private affairs and not from “the performance of [his] governmental activities and duties.” LL has asked the Office of Campaign Finance how it will interpret the law, and if, for example, Evans can pay his $20,000 fine with money raised through the legal defense fund, or whether the donations can fund his defense of any potential future criminal charges. LL will update this post when he gets an answer.
Franklin Wilds, the chairperson of Evans’ legal defense committee, says the money will not be used to pay off the BEGA fine, and will be used “solely for the purposes of paying attorneys’ fees for Mr. Evans’ legal defense.”
Wilds couldn’t say exactly which legal case Evans is or will be defending and referred those questions to the committee’s treasurer, Donald Dinan.
Dinan writes in an email to LL that “Evan’s legal defense fund (DC Legal Defense Committee for Jack Evans) is aware of the new chance(sic) in the law and intends to act in full conformity with it.”
Dinan acknowledges that Evans has retained attorney Mark Tuohey as well as Abbe Lowell, who was seen poking his head in and out of the room during Evans’ Q&A with his Council colleagues in July, where he mostly dodged questions about his private businesses. Lowell, a well known (and expensive) white collar defense attorney, represented House Democrats during Bill Clinton‘s impeachment proceedings as well as President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in a lawsuit the Democratic National Committee brought against Kushner.
“The Committee is aware that Mr. Touhey(sic) and Mr. Lowell are representing Mr. Evans as reported in the Post,“Dinan writes in the email. “The Committee has no knowledge of what Mr. Evans has paid either one of them. The Committee has just come into formation. All receipts and expenditures will be fully reported to OCF.”
The committee’s first report is due Nov. 1, Dinan notes. Evans did not return LL’s phone call or respond to an email seeking comment.
But, being the shrewd legislator that he is, Evans worked with his buddies on the Council to ensure any funds raised through his legal defense committee won’t be a total loss.
An early version of the campaign finance reform bill also proposed restrictions on constituent services funds. The bill eliminated councilmembers’ abilities to transfer money raised through a legal defense committee to a constituent services fund and would have added “theatrical, sporting, or cultural events” tickets to the list of specifically disallowable expenditures, among other changes.
The slushy constituent services funds are generally meant to help defray unexpected or arduous expenses for residents. Funeral expenses, overdue utility bills, and emergency housing costs, for example, are specifically listed in the law. Other, more general, expenses on food and refreshments and community-wide events are also permitted.
Ahead of the October 2018 committee hearing on the bill, At-Large Councilmember David Grosso tells LL this week, he suspects that Evans rallied councilmembers Mary Cheh, Vince Gray, and Anita Bonds to remove changes to constituent services funds. Evans was not a member of the judiciary committee, where the bill originated, at the time, and needed the support of his colleagues.
“I just know in the beginning the votes were there 3-2, and that included myself, Charles, and Anita,” Grosso says. “Vince Gray and Mary Cheh were against the reforms on constituent services funds for their own reasons, and after they had their private, behind-closed-door meeting, Charles came down and said they didn’t have the votes anymore.”
Cheh introduced an oral amendment to remove some of the changes to constituent services funds, which passed with support from Gray and Bonds. Cheh notes through a spokesperson that her amendment did not remove a piece of the bill that prohibits District contractors from donating to constituent services funds.
“Jack Evans sat in the front row during the mark-up glaring at us all,” Grosso says. “He was very involved. He did not want us to strip the ability for him to use constituent services funds. Jack was very intent on this, and Mary Cheh went to his aid, and Vince Gray and Anita Bonds supported that.”
Grosso adds that he heard tell that Chairman Phil Mendelson was lying in wait to offer his vote in support of saving constituent services funds.
In response to LL’s question about Evans’ efforts to lobby his colleagues to save constituent services funds, Mendelson says it’s not completely accurate to say Evans was the driving force behind Cheh’s amendment.
“I don’t know what meeting he’s referring to, but I do remember there was a discussion at the time of the mark-up, I believe in Councilmember Gray’s office, about not eliminating constituent services funds, but I would not call that lobbying,” the chairman says. “When members argue with each other, I don’t know that you can call that lobbying.”
Grosso remains frustrated that Mendelson removed him from the judiciary committee and replaced him with Evans at the end of last year’s Council period.
“The sequence of the votes and then the chairman deciding not to put me back on that committee shows you where the chairman was on this,” Grosso says. Mendelson acknowledges that he did not support the proposed changes to constituent services funds.
Now, Evans, who has become the poster boy for pushing the boundaries on the use of constituent services funds, is free and clear to dump any money donated to his legal defense committee, with a maximum contribution limit of $2,000, into his constituent services fund, with a maximum contribution limit of $500.
Over the years, Evans has used the constituent fund to pay for professional sports tickets, membership dues for the Economic Club of Washington, and subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal, according to a report from Public Citizen, a nonprofit watchdog organization. Evans also used the fund to pay for a $50 parking ticket in Arlington, the Post reported. Almost $152,000 is currently sitting in Evans’ constituent fund, according to his most recent filing.