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In an anti-climactic end to the disciplinary action against Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans Tuesday, the D.C. Council voted unanimously to strip his Committee on Finance and Revenue of two significant pieces: the Commission on the Arts and Humanities and Events D.C., the District’s sports authority. Some bills dealing with tax abatements and tax increment financing (TIFs) will also now be referred to the Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie’s Committee on Business and Economic Development.
There was no debate ahead of the vote and only one lawmaker, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, chose to speak.
“Some residents think this action is adequate and responsible, and some think this is not enough,” Silverman said. “In policing our code of conduct, we need to always consider the public’s trust. There is more we need to do to keep and strengthen faith in our government and integrity in our decision making.”
Two weeks ago, before the Council reprimanded Evans, Silverman floated the idea of creating a standing committee to address ethics issues as they come up.
“They arise now, they’ve arisen in the past, and they will arise in the future,” she said then, but she’s apparently abandoned that effort for the moment.
The Council’s vote to reprimand Evans and alter his committee came after he was found peddling his public position for private gain.
Evans is also the target of a grand jury investigation and a grassroots recall effort.
He notched a minor victory against the recall Wednesday as the D.C. Board of Elections did not give recall organizers the go-ahead to begin gathering signatures because they didn’t file the proper campaign finance paperwork on time.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson has resisted calls for more severe discipline, but leaves open the possibility of further action if more information becomes available.
“There’s no bright line, but it would have to be something more than a subpoena,” he said. “It would be, as some people have said, a shoe to drop.”
In the meantime, the fallout has stretched beyond Evans, the District’s longest serving lawmaker. So far, the Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s office have received subpoenas related to the criminal investigation. The debate over how to appropriately address Evans’ ethics violations has divided the Council and, at least to some extent, distracted its members (and reporters) from other business.
So let’s look back at the winners and losers, so far, in this whole mess:
• Mendelson: As chairman of the Committee of the Whole, which includes all 13 councilmembers, Mendelson gave himself (and the rest of the Council agreed) control over the two organizations that were removed from Evans’ committee.
(LL could also argue that Mendelson is a loser in some sense. Constituents and councilmembers have criticized the chairman for taking what some would consider a soft touch in disciplining Evans. But Mendelson seems pretty comfortable with his decisions, so he’ll stay in the winners’ corner for now.)
• McDuffie: As chairman of the Committee on Business and Economic Development, McDuffie will now oversee tax abatements and TIFs.
But Evans also sits on the business and economic development committee and will still get to vote on those measures before they get to the whole Council.
During a news conference Monday morning, Mendelson said the change is meaningful despite that fact.
“As long as a member is on the Council, they still have a vote on all matters before the Council,” Mendelson said. “The committee chair controls the agenda of the committee, and with regard to tax abatements, Mr. Evans won’t have control.”
Mendelson explained that tax abatements and TIFs are being re-referred out of Evans’ committee after some councilmembers raised concerns about the appearance of conflicts of interest. Unlike raising or lowering taxes for all single family homeowners, for example, tax abatements and TIFs can benefit specific people or businesses.
The “Unfoldment, Inc. Real Property Tax Relief Act of 2019,” for example, would excuse taxes for two pieces of property owned by the nonprofit Unfoldment Inc. The bill, introduced by Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, was moved out of Evans’ committee and into McDuffie’s last month.
White introduced a similar measure in 2018, but the bill never moved out of Evans’ committee. The chief financial officer’s analysis determined that the abatement was not necessary.
• Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau: This week, Nadeau scored some points with constituents when she pounced on the loophole that has allowed Evans to hold outside jobs in the past. Nadeau introduced the “One Job at a Time Act of 2019,” which bars councilmembers from outside employment with a carve-out for Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who is a law professor at George Washington University. Nadeau’s bill bans all outside employment other than teaching. The bill has six co-sponsors.
• Councilmembers David Grosso, Nadeau and Silverman, who failed in their call for an ad hoc committee to investigate Evans. At-Large Councilmember Robert White and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen did not sign onto the letter calling for a special committee, but both did say Evans should be removed as chair of the finance committee.
• Kathy Patterson’s advice: Back in 2011, when D.C. was considering ethics reform, including establishing the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA), Patterson, a former councilmember and current D.C. auditor, had some suggestions.
“I know from experience that it is very difficult to criticize a colleague no matter how egregious one’s behavior may appear to be.” Patterson’s said in her testimony. “Having a committee named by legislators with the express responsibility of acting on behalf of the body can mitigate the personal difficulty individual councilmembers face when controversy arises.”
In her testimony, Patterson spoke against creating a new entity to police councilmembers’ behavior, and instead suggested a standing committee to handle ethics allegations and make recommendations for changes to laws and regulations. She also said that councilmembers should automatically lose committee chairmanships if a lawmaker is the subject of a “formal government action.”
She clarified this week that BEGA’s investigation into Evans, as well as the federal grand jury, fall within that definition of formal action.
Mendelson’s resistance to taking stronger action against Evans has thus far relied on the fact that there have been no investigatory conclusions. He has referenced examples in the recent past involving then-Councilmember Marion Barry and Councilmember Jim Graham,both of whom were punished after some sort of official finding.
Patterson’s point: Articulate a clear policy and practice in order to avoid ad-hockery and the appearance that decisions on intra-council discipline are personally or politically motivated.
• Adam Eidinger: Known for leading the successful ballot initiative that led to the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of weed in the District, Eidinger is the driving force behind the effort to recall Evans. The BOE blocked the effort from moving onto the signature-gathering stage, delaying the process for now.
“I want to smash something,” Eidinger said when reached by phone after the BOE’s decision. “I won’t, but the recall is in jeopardy, and may not be feasible. We’re losing 30 days, but I still think it’s feasible, and if we can get it on the ballot, it’ll pass.”
Eidinger pledged to refile the petition. If it’s approved, he’ll have to collect about 5,200 signatures from registered voters in Ward 2 in order to trigger a special recall election. A successful campaign could push Eidinger into the winner’s bracket.
No D.C. councilmember or mayor has ever been recalled.
• District residents, whose elected leaders have been dragged, divided, and distracted. Dragged into the criminal investigation into Evans via the subpoenas; divided over how to address the investigation and Evans’ attempted influence peddling; and distracted from the reason they’re voted into office—to handle the public’s business efficiently and effectively.
• D.C. Democratic State Committee: Tonight, the D.C. Dems will debate a resolution calling on Evans to step down from his post as national committeeman. In that position, Evans represents the District to the Democratic National Committee.