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Vincent Orange remains a showman, even as he faces the crash and burn of a political career. The flashy at-large councilmember once handed out oranges—get it?—from a Segway while campaigning, and turned a city-funded video about Emancipation Day celebrations into a Kim Jong Il–style ode to himself.
Orange’s defeat by Robert White in June’s primary may have signaled the end of his antic-filled term, but he still has one more trick up his sleeve, as he revealed last week.
The at-large councilmember best known for his undying loyalty to campaign donors and two disastrous runs for mayor outdid himself last Thursday when he announced that he was taking the CEO position at the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. The job at the leading-but-struggling lobby for District businesses seemed like the revolving door position Orange was always expected to take after losing his primary.
Instead of quitting the Council, though, Orange plans to serve out the remainder of his term. Initially, he even planned to continue to chair the Council’s committee on business and regulations while working for the same businesses his committee was supposed to oversee. (On Wednesday, Orange announced that he will relinquish the committee chairmanship.)
Cue the outrage—and the indifference. Several of Orange’s colleagues say that his new job amounts to a colossal conflict of interest, especially considering that Orange backed a work scheduling bill that businesses opposed before stalling it right around the time we now know he was being considered for the Chamber job.
“I think it’s an inherent conflict of interest,” says Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau.
But Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and the District’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability all say Orange’s gig is technically legal under the longstanding moonlighting rules.
“There’s what the law prohibits and what people don’t like,” Mendelson says.
It’s all legal as long as Orange recuses himself from the business lobby’s interests while serving on the Council. In other words, one of just 13 councilmembers must avoid working on anything related to the contentious business-related bills before the Council.
Orange’s new gig might be his most outrageous Council maneuver yet, but it’s far from his first brush with dubious ethics. He let a Pepco lobbyist live in his house while voting on legislation that affected the power utility. He received a rare admonishment from the Board of Ethics and Accountability after trying to keep open a donor’s rat-poop-infested grocery store. And, of course, Orange was the beneficiary of an illegal shadow campaign worth nearly $150,000 from former city contractor Jeff Thompson. (Orange has said he didn’t know about it.)
Former Chamber CEO Barbara Lang, who ran the group for almost 15 years, finds it hard to imagine how Orange can do both jobs full-time, especially while avoiding a minefield of conflicts. Lang, who regularly worked 13-hour days as the Chamber’s president and was registered as a lobbyist, says much of the job consists of fundraising—a situation sure to raise endless ethical quandaries if Orange continues on the Council.
“I begged for money each and every day,” Lang says.
The Chamber needs a full-time president and CEO after almost a year without permanent leadership that saw business interests marginalized by the Council. Former Chamber head Harry Wingo, who replaced Lang in 2014, resigned in December 2015.
Lang can’t see how Orange can do both jobs. “One of the two are going to get shorted,” she says.
Darrin Sobin, the District’s Director of Government Ethics who works for BEGA, says the ethics board officially cleared Orange’s employment but warned him that “there likely would be issues” with the second job. Each potential conflict for Orange will have to be evaluated individually, Sobin says.
It’s unclear how Orange plans to avoid those potential conflicts, though. He declined multiple requests for comment, and when LL arrived at Orange’s Council office to ask his chief of staff James Brown for comment, Brown opened the office door and told LL to leave.
Why is Orange making this so difficult, instead of just resigning his seat? Orange hasn’t disclosed how much the Chamber is paying him, but tax records show that Wingo made more than $180,000 in 2014. Whatever money Orange makes from the Chamber would be in addition to his $134,852 annual salary from the Council.
In an interview with the Washington Business Journal, Orange claimed that he has to stay on the Council to keep jobs for his Council office and committee staff. Of course, the easiest way to do that would be to decline the Chamber job. Even if he did resign, rather than serve out his lame-duck term, Orange’s committee staffers will likely keep their jobs when their committee is absorbed by the Committee of the Whole. After years of councilmembers trading their city hall digs for jail cells, the Council knows how to deal with sudden departures.
The fundamental problem with both BEGA and Mendelson’s reaction is that they depend on a councilmember with a pure heart who acts in good faith. Few would consider Orange, who earned BEGA’s first-ever admonishment for a councilmember after the rat incident, as someone who fits the bill.
It’s not clear whether anyone can stop Orange from drawing two paychecks until January. While some councilmembers have spoken against Orange’s latest manipulation, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans—who has his own incredibly conflicted job at a law firm that frequently lobbies the Council—said during an appearance on WAMU that the situation should be left to Orange.
An editorial in the Washington Business Journal—not exactly a nest of lefties—called for Orange to resign. Meanwhile, despite Mendelson’s public indifference to Orange’s moonlighting, some Wilson Building wags expect him to make a move against Orange for putting the Council in such an awkward position.
The effective purchase of a councilmember by District businesses rankles, especially since Orange has previously been the Council’s strongest advocate for closing the second-job loophole. Still, residents only need to put up with Orange for four more months. The rule that allows councilmembers to have even the most conflicting second jobs, though, will be with them for much longer.