Councilmember Jack Evans sat at the head of the table during the Council’s Tuesday morning breakfast meeting, occasionally scrolling through Twitter and Facebook on his phone.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson had just announced that he would introduce a resolution to reprimand Evans for using his government email to solicit private work. The emails to lobbying firms, first reported by the Washington Post, show Evans’ attempts to cash in on his influence and relationships gained as the District’s longest-serving lawmaker.
Evans was mostly silent as his colleagues discussed property tax reductions and the appointment of the District’s new schools chancellor. Nobody brought up the reprimand.
In a prepared statement, Mendelson said Evans violated the Council’s code of conduct that bars members from using the “prestige of office or public position for private gain.”
“This reprimand will send a clear message that Mr. Evans’ actions are not only unacceptable but are inconsistent with the Council’s ethical standards,” Mendelson said.
The reprimand does not concern Evans’ dealings with a digital sign company, which is the subject of a federal grand jury probe. Federal authorities sent subpoenas to the Office of the City Administrator and to “three of four” of Evans’ private clients.
Evans has ducked reporters since news of his emails broke late last week.
The night before Mendelson announced the proposed punishment, Evans spoke at a Ward 2 Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) meeting and concluded his speech by quipping, “If you talk long enough, there are no questions.” Then he grabbed a cookie on his way out.
But facing a formal reprimand, there was no avoiding the group of reporters and TV cameras huddled outside the meeting.
“In retrospect I would have done a lot of things differently,” Evans said. “I certainly made a lot of mistakes, and I want to take this opportunity to apologize to my constituents and to the residents of the District of Columbia and to my colleagues. That’s all I have to say.”
Evans then disappeared into a nearby elevator and declined to clarify why, exactly, he is sorry.
If anyone on the Council knows both sides of this thing, it’s Vince Gray. The current Ward 7 councilmember has served as Council chairman and has stared down reporters and TV cameras during his own scandal as mayor.
He and Evans talked about the reprimand in the breakfast room for several minutes before Evans faced reporters. Though he says he didn’t have any advice for Evans, Gray tried to offer his colleague comfort.
“That’s probably about the best he could hope for at this point,” Gray later told LL. “He also said what he should say, which is ‘I haven’t done anything wrong.’”
Evans’ attorney Mark Tuoheytold City Paper that Evans’ outside employment is permitted by Council rules. And he acknowledged that Evans made a mistake in using his government email to solicit private work.
Gray also says he talked to Mendelson late into Monday evening.
“It’s a tough situation, man,” Gray said. “You’re dealing with someone who is an equal, but you also have to make sure that issues are properly dealt with. I think he struck the right balance, and that’s about the best you can do in a situation like this.”
But not everyone agrees.
Reprimand vs. censure
Councilmembers David Grosso,Elissa Silverman, and Brianne Nadeau called for a special committee to investigate Evans, which requires agreement from at least five councilmembers.
According to Council rules, a reprimand is merely a formal statement of disapproval and does not require an investigation. A censure is a disciplinary action, and though it does not come with a fine or suspension, it does require a Council investigation.
Grosso called Mendelson’s proposed reprimand a “slap on the wrist.”
“It stops short of any real accountability as Councilmember Evans will remain at the helm of the powerful Finance and Revenue Committee from which he peddled his influence using the prestige of his office,” Grosso said in a prepared statement.
Mendelson said a reprimand is a “highly unusual” action for the Council to take and is only the second time it’s happened during his 20-year tenure.
After reprimand and censure, the next level of discipline is expulsion, which requires a five-sixths vote.
Slapped back then
Former Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham received a Council reprimand in 2013. At that time, Mendelson’s move followed the District’s ethics board’s finding that Graham tried to leverage his vote on the lucrative DC Lottery contract to help a campaign donor get a piece of a development deal.
Graham resisted the Washington Post editorial board’s calls to resign.
Also in 2013, a special Council committee like the one Grosso, Silverman, and Nadeau are demanding voted to censure then-Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry and strip him of his committee chairmanship.
Barry had been fined $13,600 by the ethics board for accepting thousands in cash from contractors doing business with the city.
The full Council voted to censure Barry, but not before Evans tried to reduce it to a reprimand.
The Council also censured Barry in 2010 for awarding a contract to a girlfriend.
What do the ANCs think?
LL sent emails to each member of Ward 2’s ANCs. Out of the 40 messages, only four responded.
John Fanning of 2F suggests that some might be afraid to speak out.
“A lot of people depend on him for whatever they need to get done in the community,” Fanning says. “He acts like the Lion King, and I think people don’t want to cross that line with him, which is unfortunate because he’s accountable to us.”
Fanning called on Evans to reveal his private clients so the public will know if they do business with the D.C. government.
“He’s really tarnishing his reputation,” Fanning adds.
James Harnett of ANC 2A says Evans should resign and the Council should reconsider whether members should be allowed to work second jobs.
“We need to have somebody whose ethical credentials and leadership on issues is clear,” Harnett says, pointing out that Evans spent some time Sunday evening requesting edits on the section of his Wikipedia page about the recent scandal.
“That’s certainly not a good way to communicate with his constituents,” he adds.
Patrick Kennedy, also of 2A, says Evans needs to address the allegations “fully and honestly.”
“For my part, I don’t want to rush to a conclusion or judgment without giving the councilmember a fair opportunity to address the allegations, but he needs to be forthcoming about a situation that has raised considerable concern—and he needs to do it sooner rather than later,” Kennedy says.
Randy Downs of 2B says, “as elected officials, we have an obligation to act in a legal and ethical manner. As a voter, I expect my elected official to uphold the values and responsibilities of the office.” He declined to elaborate.
A group of 14 ANC members from across the city, including Harnett and one other Ward 2 commissioner, also signed onto a letter calling on Mendelson to strip Evans of his committee chairmanship.
“We are appalled by Councilmember Evans’ blatant unethical and corrupt actions,” the letter says. “These actions violate the District of Columbia Code of Official Conduct and they are not consistent with the D.C. values of honesty, ethical behavior, and leadership.”
Tom Sherwood and Cuneyt Dil contributed reporting.