Just a few months ago, the D.C. government was unified in saying no to the proliferation of digital signs across the city and the powerful corporations behind them.
But that position has changed, at least in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office. Loose Lips has learned that Bowser is planning to circumvent her own government by attempting to reopen a backdoor already slammed shut by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the Office of the City Administrator, and the Office of the Attorney General.
Top mayoral aide Beverly Perry has taken control of the digital sign portfolio, which stands to return millions of dollars per year to developers and owners of some of the choicest real estate from Georgetown to Petworth and L’Enfant Plaza to Mazza Gallerie. Bowser’s office isn’t offering specifics or sharing the rationale for reversing course, but there are clues about the mayor’s motives.
Consistent with a theme of the Bowser administration, backroom dealings, lobbyist leverage, and ties to her inner circle loom large.
Last spring, Digi Outdoor Media began installing a network of 60 digital signs with a projected value of $800 million over the next five or so years. DCRA issued stop-work orders because the signs violated permit regulations. In July, with work still underway, City Administrator Rashad Young issued emergency regulations requiring permits for signs that were located inside a building and clearly discernable from other properties.
Digi ignored those actions until D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine obtained a temporary injunction in November. But the plot thickened in December when Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans introduced emergency legislation to allow the signs to remain and for dozens more to be installed.
Evans pulled his bill for lack of votes—and after LL exposed his ties to Digi Media CEO Don MacCord, with whom he bundled $52,300 in campaign contributions from business interests that included developers with ties to Bowser.
Yet Digi is like water on a stone. In large part because of lawyer-lobbyist-fundraiser and perennial influencer David Wilmot, who has been working councilmembers and D.C. officials on behalf of Digi Media.
Wilmot is a neighbor, friend, and golf partner of Beverly Perry, a longtime Evans ally, and was a key fundraiser for Bowser’s 2014 campaign—but only after Bowser defeated Vince Gray in the primary.
But people in the Wilson Building clam up quickly at the mention of him. Perhaps because Wilmot isn’t registered as a Digi lobbyist. That would be J.R. Meyers, a Bowser confidant who traveled to China with her on an economic development mission last year. Meyers has reported lobbying seven councilmembers on behalf of Digi, including Evans and council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who received $7,000 in constituent service fund donations late last year from Wilmot, Digi executives, and developers with ties to Bowser, Perry, and Evans.
Observers of D.C. politics know that Wilmot is the heavy hitter in this particular scenario. And despite not being registered as Digi’s lobbyist, he has reportedly met with multiple councilmembers, the city administrator, multiple agency directors, Perry, and Bowser chief of staff John Falcicchio.
Falcicchio confirms meeting with Wilmot about Digi and the signage issue but declines to share details of the conversation.
Only one councilmember would confirm meeting with Wilmot about digital signs. A staffer for Ward 5 member Kenyan McDuffie met with Wilmot and Meyers after Evans pulled his emergency bill in December. Another councilmember says Wilmot was recently seen talking with Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray and that he visited Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White. When asked to confirm, Gray’s spokeswoman says, “You can ask David Wilmot.” White, who received $5,000 from a fundraiser at Wilmot’s home on Nov. 16, says his meeting “wasn’t about” Digi Media.
So why all the secrecy? One reason might be that Evans, the mayor’s only staunch ally with any stature on the council, feels pressure to deliver for Digi. He was seen rushing in and out of the mayor’s office Tuesday. And when LL asked him about Digi he replied half-jokingly, “I don’t want to talk about Digi. You did me in last time,” referring to the bundling article.
It might not be a laughing matter. LL’s sources say that new digital signs have been built based on confidence that regulatory obstacles will be cleared. “The Digi sales person from Premier Media was bragging how they got a deal worked out with the mayor’s office,” a source says.
Opponents of the digital signage end-around are not amused. Says Meg Maguire, vice chair of the Committee of 100, which advocates for responsible city planning, “If Mayor Bowser tries to undercut DCRA and the attorney general’s office, then she is kowtowing to industry pressure. And that is not only cynical but unconscionable.”