Generally speaking, there’s not much temptation in the life of an advisory neighborhood commissioner. The office comes with no salary, hardly any power, and the perks to match.
Yet two commissions in Ward 5 are being roiled by the news that a pair of commissioners accepted plane tickets to sunny Florida last June. At two community meetings this month in Brookland, commissioners denounced their colleagues for taking the trip, and the Ivy City-based Citizens for a Safe Ward 5 has hired a lawyer to investigate the junket.
Commissioners Rhonda Chappelle and Joseph Bowser flew to Orlando at the invitation of the private-prison company Bannum Inc. Bannum is building a halfway house on the commission’s turf, at 2210 Adams Place NE, set to open this May.
During a closed-door meeting last April involving representatives of the mayor’s office, the nonprofit D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Bannum President David Lowry offered to shuttle any Ward 5 ANC chairperson to see one of the company’s halfway-house operations down in Orlando.
Chappelle, then chair of ANC 5B, took Lowry up on his offer. ANC 5A Chair Norma Broadnax accepted a ticket and gave it to Bowser, one of the 5A commissioners.
The District’s conflict-of-interest laws forbid public officials and their families from receiving “anything of value” if “it could reasonably be inferred that the thing of value would influence the public official in the discharge of his or her duties.” A round-trip ticket in coach between Orlando and Dulles Airport averages $250.
Chappelle and Bowser both say that the free trips did not influence their opinions of Bannum. “I never read the [ethics] code,” says Bowser, who says he stayed in Orlando only four hours before flying back to report to Broadnax. “I was given the ticket and I just went on. I don’t even remember what month it was—that’s how important it was to me.”
Chappelle adds that she was powerless to do anything anyway. Bannum had already secured legal permission to open the Adams Place halfway house, she says, so her opinion at that stage was meaningless. “I don’t see it as an ethical violation, because I understood [Bannum] had a right to open the facility,” Chappelle says.
Chappelle says she traveled with her husband, James Chappelle, who bought his own ticket, and they stayed in Florida for four days. She paid for her own hotel and food, she says.
Why would anyone even bother giving commissioners a junket? “This was not done to get a vacation,” says James Crawford, community organizer for the D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project, who accompanied the commissioners on the trip. “It was done to give the community an understanding” of Bannum’s operations.
The Bannum Place of Orlando facility, Crawford says, is the largest of Bannum’s halfway houses, with an urban location that approximates that of the halfway house that’s coming to D.C. The Orlando operation is substantially smaller, however, with 80 beds rather than the 150 to 300 that Bannum plans for the District.
The Adams Place facility in the Langdon neighborhood has been a source of outrage for many commissioners, who have variously complained that it was not fully discussed, that the neighborhood is already saturated with convicts, and even that the industrial surroundings will be a bad influence on the inmates. Word of the junket has angered them even further.
Commissioner Mary Currie of ANC 5A says that the trip should have been documented in advance and cleared with the ANC. “It should have come before the commission,” Currie says. “We didn’t vote on it. It was just done.”
Commissioner Jean Taylor of ANC 5B says she first learned of the junket at her Feb. 6 ANC meeting, and it was discussed only briefly then. “It’s like it was a secret or something,” she says. “And as an alternate jury member who had to sit through two-and-a-half months of Watergate…I don’t appreciate undercover stuff.”
Crawford says he went to three ANC meetings to pass out reports about the trip to Orlando, a week afterward. If people didn’t pass the information along, he says, “it’s not on James Crawford.”
The new chair of the ANC 5B, Regina James, says she’s not prepared to let Chappelle and Bowser off the hook. “If you have business before the commission, you don’t go out to dinner, you don’t take trips,” she says. “You are tainting yourself.” CP