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How far has Mayor-elect Adrian Fenty come since the time he bellowed that the Nationals stadium project was “an unfair deal that every member on this council would say is a bad deal”?

All the way.

This almighty populist earlier this month drafted a piece of legislation that has LL wondering if he missed some critical faces at Fenty’s mayoral kickoff event. Was he flanked by the Lerners, owners of the Washington Nationals?

The Fenty proposal, after all, essentially contemplated a massive municipal giveaway to the shopping-mall-cum-sports moguls. It would have exempted all new projects proposed anywhere on the baseball stadium site from zoning review.

“The initial recommendation from lawyers for the [D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission], and the chief financial officer advised us there were some positives to that approach,” Fenty told LL.

If you consider cozying up to business elites a “positive,” then, yes, Fenty has a point.

Fenty’s no-zoning-review ploy was designed to break an impasse over the vexing issue of parking for the Nationals stadium in Southeast. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and his new-urbanist supporters were pushing for reinforced parking structures that could be “wrapped” with housing and retail uses. The plan received the support of the D.C. Zoning Commission.

The Lerners, though, didn’t like it. Constructing parking garages sheathed in condos and the like, they feared, would take forever, a situation that would leave high-dollar ticket-holders hoofing it on Opening Day in 2008.

The city ended up granting the Lerners their wish: Legislation passed by the D.C. Council exempted the area set aside for parking from all zoning regulations and freed the city to build the parking-only structures preferred by the Lerners. The council, however, didn’t go as far as Fenty had originally proposed—namely, exempting the entire baseball stadium site from zoning regs.

So, developer fat cats who want to build near the stadium will still have to bother themselves with those nattering zoning-board appointees, not to mention all the civic types who’ll no doubt find some way to object to their plans.

What stopped the council from adopting Fenty’s sweeping giveaway? Well, Phil Mendelson, for one. The at-large councilmember refused to support the zoning exemption unless it applied only to the parking areas.

Says Fenty: “At the end of the day, we needed to compromise on that in order to get the support needed to pass the bill.”

DIDN’T WE FIX THIS?

Last year, during the infancy of the mayoral campaign, indignant government watchdogs and the media pummeled mayoral candidates for piling up hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in unregulated exploratory-committee treasuries.

The exploratory option was a candidate’s dream. Mayoral hopefuls could run a campaign without any limits on contributions or spending. The whole operation could steam along without a legal obligation to report anything.

The council’s response to the uproar was fairly predictable. It passed emergency legislation that set rules for the use of exploratory funds after most of the money had already been spent.

So with three special elections looming, you would think exploratory committees wouldn’t be a big issue.

Think again.

One quick look at the upcoming contests for the Ward 4 and Ward 7 council seats shows history is about to repeat itself. Right now, at least four council wannabes are raising money hand over fist for exploratory committees with absolutely no limits or reporting requirements.

That’s because nothing has changed. The emergency legislation governing the sanctioned political slush funds expired when the council failed to pass permanent legislation.

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But this time it’s tough to blame the candidates. They’re actually being encouraged to set up unregulated exploratory committees by a strange group of advisers: the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance (OCF). Granted, the guidance from the OCF could use an upgrade on the clarity front. “The Office of Campaign Finance? They were kind of bouncing me back and forth” with the D.C. Board of Election and Ethics, says Pamela Ferrell, wife of Ward 4 candidate T.A. Uqdah and the treasurer of his exploratory committee. “Nobody is really, really clear,” she says.

Even so, prospective candidates have been told by the OCF that the exploratory route is the only viable option. The move by D.C.’s electoral cash accountant stems from a bizarre yet logical quirk in the city’s election code—in order to be a candidate, there has to be an open office.

Barring unforeseen tragic events, Ward 4 councilmember and Mayor-elect Fenty will take the mayoral oath of office and vacate his council seat on Jan. 2. The same goes for Ward 7 councilmember and Council Chair–elect Vincent Gray, along with school board member and Deputy Mayor for Education-Designee Victor Reinoso.

But right now, according to the OCF, candidates swarming to fill those soon-to-be-open seats and traipsing through city neighborhoods with lit in hand are officially running for no office at all. In order for a D.C. candidate to form a campaign committee, a statement of candidacy “requires the candidate to identify the election year for which the form is being submitted,” according to an Oct. 27 letter from OCF Director Cecily Collier-Montgomery to potential Ward 4 candidate Muriel Bowser. “Thus, the only registrations (OCF) is authorized to receive at present are registrations that identify the election as 2008. Despite the fact that it may be presumed that vacancies for Ward Council seats may become available before the expiration on the current terms in 2008, at this point, no election has been scheduled prior to 2008.”

In short, the OCF contends that “there is no provision in D.C. law that authorizes a potential candidate to receive contributions or make expenditures based on a vacancy.”

Somebody had better tell the candidates. Bowser has held several meet-and-greets where checks were written. Michael A. Brown has a Petworth campaign office and is ordering banners. His “exploratory” lit is as slick as the candidate and reads: “Michael Brown—Ward 4” at the bottom, along with “Paid for by Brown for Ward 4 Exploratory Committee” in tiny print on the flip side. On her multicolored handout, union lawyer and activist Renée Bowser refers to her organization as the “Renée Bowser DC Council 2006 Exploratory Committee.”

Uqdah is already cranking out his literature and raising money, too. He’s working out of an office in a building he owns and doesn’t have to tell a soul where the cash is coming from.

So the candidates are ready, but D.C. law is not. “If I was running for office in 2008, I could set up a [principal campaign] committee,” says Brown. “If somebody wanted to run against a candidate who was elected in November, they could do it right now. Forcing us to form exploratory committees for an election in a few months? That just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

Barry’s new chief of staff and former Ward 6 council candidate Keith Perry’s name popped up in a strange expenditure column for the Fenty campaign. Under “returned checks and refunds,” the Fenty campaign reports Perry’s name and the amount of $133 on Oct. 11. That might seem an odd amount for a political contribution—unless of course you take into account the bounced check charges. Perry contends he “replaced” the check. “I had something going on in my account at that time and the check didn’t clear,” he says.

We all make minor accounting errors from time to time. But even with his apparently tight budget, Perry was spotted picking Barry up after his most recent court appearance in a BMW Z4 convertible. The vanity plates on the hot ride read: perry.

Just to be certain, LL asked Perry if the car belonged to him. He replied with a smile, “It sure does.” —James Jones

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