D.C. is a big city, but in local political and business circles, it can feel as small as Mayberry. Everyone seems to know what everyone else is doing. Leading businessmen are constantly under suspicion. And personal relationships lead to speculation about how the cake is baked.
Take the national developer who leaves a meeting with the mayor, then receives a call moments later from an influential local counterpart who cautions against going into the executive suite without him.
Or the same local developer who offers money to nonprofits associated with local neighborhood commissioners who will vote on his land deal—and whose employee is sleeping with the city official overseeing the project.
Such a player is Buwa Binitie, a major contributor to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s FreshPAC, an accomplished businessman and insider who joins her on economic development journeys abroad, and someone deeply involved in major city programs and projects.
On the surface, Binitie, who didn’t respond to interview requests, is merely the most recent in a line of developers who wield tremendous influence and successfully win city projects, even more so depending on who is in power. On another level, he’s a prime example of how the current debate over campaign finance reform glosses over the more insidious ways in which D.C. government does business.
Recently approved for a second consecutive term on the D.C. Housing Finance Agency Board, which he chairs and which finances many of his projects, Binitie’s bona fides are strong. He has closed on more than $300 million in real estate transactions and created thousands of units of workforce and affordable housing. He partners with private developers, negotiates public land deals, and advises public agencies.
But his influence doesn’t come cheap, and it is wielded in various ways. In addition to a $10,000 contribution to FreshPAC, Binitie and his company Dantes Partners have contributed $25,000 to local candidates since Bowser’s mentor, Adrian Fenty, was mayor. And he generously supports nonprofit groups.
An example of that support is when his firm was competing for a contract to acquire and rezone city property in Ward 6 to build a mixed-use project known as Capitol Vista, with 104 affordable housing units and 3,200 square feet of ground floor retail.
Bidders on public land deals must win over Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners before gaining city approval, and so-called “community benefits agreements” are part of that courtship. At an ANC 6E meeting on Nov. 3, 2015, Binitie gave a PowerPoint presentation in which he proposed contributing $100,000 to a number of nonprofit organizations, including several associated with commissioners who would ultimately vote on the winning bid. The offer smacked of undue influence, and it did not go unnoticed. “I’m a neighbor, and I don’t like how that went down,” says a resident who witnessed the proposal.
In particular, Binitie dangled the prospect of contributions to Shaw Main Streets, a nonprofit associated with ANC commissioner Alex Padro, who sits on that organization’s board, and Holy Redeemer Church, which is associated with commissioner Alfreda Judd. Padro says that he told Binitie after the meeting that the Shaw Main Streets offer was inappropriate because “SMS does not serve the neighborhood where the project was proposed to be built.” Padro also says he would have recused himself from voting on the project had the offer stood. In the end, Binitie contributed $50,000 to other nonprofits.
Binitie’s overture was brazen enough for ANC Chair Marge Maceda to upbraid him for risking a perception of impropriety, the resident recalls. Asked to reflect on the matter in hindsight, Maceda, who no longer serves on the commission, downplays it. “I may have questioned where the money was to be distributed,” she says. “If I reprimanded anyone, it was because the developer didn’t come to our zoning subcommittee to discuss it first. I don’t think of it as dishonest, but it’s wise to not have [nonprofit] board members involved in the political decisions of the ANC.”
Less pecuniary, but equally familiar to the sub rosa of D.C. political and business culture—and equally galling to the resident who first contacted City Paper about the meeting—is the romantic relationship between the Binitie employee who managed Capitol Vista at the time and the project manager for the Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development who oversees the development.
Loose Lips doesn’t condone peering into people’s bedrooms, but it is relevant and widely known that LaToya Thomas, then-business development director for Dantes Partners, was seeing DMPED project manager Lee Goldstein, who oversees both Capitol Vista and Park Morton, another Binitie project. Thomas is careful not to discuss specifics related to her former employer, and when asked about her relationship with Goldstein, she pauses: “I’m not interested in answering that question.” Goldstein did not return calls, and DMPED spokesman Joaquin McPeek did not respond to requests for comment.
Thomas has since started her own firm called Brick & Story and is consulting with DMPED on the New Communities Initiative, which includes Park Morton. Observers in the business community are troubled by her hard pivot to government consulting. “You don’t get to just take off one jersey and put on another like that,” says a local developer.
Campaign finance reform is complicated; human nature, less so. And missing from the rhetoric of reform is the human factor, the relationships that form the basis or at least the perception of how deals go down in the District.
Ward 6 D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen, who is trying to forge a campaign finance reform package out of numerous pending pieces of legislation, got into it this week on the dais with Ward 2 colleague Jack Evans, who claimed that no evidence of pay-to-play exists. Allen was quick to refresh memories, citing Michael “Piece of the Piece” Brown, who pleaded guilty in 2013 to accepting a cup full of cash; the council censures of Marion Barry and Jim Graham, and an ethics board reprimand of Vincent Orange, now CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, who testified at the hearing.
“I believe there is support to cut back on the reality and the perception of pay-to-play,” Allen tells City Paper in an interview after the hearing. But he concedes the task is complicated by so many competing agendas that it’s hard to see a unified way forward. “It’s like the Wild West,” he says.
Perhaps it’s because D.C. knows no other way to do business. Don Peebles, of the Peebles Corp., was on the receiving end of a call from Binitie shortly after leaving a meeting last summer with Mayor Muriel Bowser, her chief of staff John Falcicchio, Deputy Mayor Brian Kenner, and some local developers. According to sources who know Peebles, Binitie wanted him to know that word travels fast within Bowser’s inner circle.
Peebles chuckles when asked about the call. A distinguished national developer who has seen it all going back to the Marion Barry days, he is too savvy to trash talk competitors or would-be local partners. In his view, there are only so many people engaged in the political process in D.C., a government that is still politically very young compared to, say, New York or Boston, places where he also does business. Insiders are going to pick sides and deal with people they know, he says, making it tough for small businesses to come in and compete on a level playing field.
Will campaign finance reform help cure D.C. of its small town ways? “Probably not,” says Peebles, a realist where free markets—and the freedom to contribute to politicians—are concerned. “If people are going to be unethical, then they are gonna find ways to do it,” he says. “The best way to ensure reform is to elect ethically strong candidates with a high level of integrity.”