It’s the kind of story that fuels complaints about lawyers and their seeming lack of ethics. Further, it raises all sorts of questions about where boundaries should be drawn between D.C. councilmembers who are attorneys and constituents who are easy prey. But listen to Willie “Don” Matthews’ story and judge for yourself.
“I was walking down Southern Avenue SE,” Matthews says. “I stopped at the red light and a car also was stopped. I started to cross the street. And the next thing I knew, I was on the hood, and the driver had jumped out of the car, his hands in the air, as if to ask what had he done….I guess the driver decided he wanted to make that right turn on red.”
An ambulance arrived on the scene, and Matthews, then 64, was taken to Greater Southeast Community Hospital, where he was evaluated, patched up, and sent home. “I just had a scratch on my leg, but because I am a diabetic, they wanted to make sure it wasn’t anything serious.”
Although Matthews says he wasn’t too shaken up about the 1997 accident, it bothered him enough that, when he was talking with a staffer for At-Large D.C. Councilmember Harold Brazil, he told him what had happened. “You know, it was just guys talking.” That was how Matthews assessed the conversation, anyway.
Ten minutes later, Matthews says, he received a call from Brazil. “He asked how I was feeling. I told him it wasn’t anythingonly a scratch. He said that I had been hit and I deserved to be paid. He asked if I had seen a doctor. Then he told me he had this doctor on K Street that he works with.” Matthews says his initial reaction was to resist. But after a while, Brazil persuaded him to see the doctor, David Sniezek. Brazil even made the appointment for him, Matthews says.
The doctor’s assessment was the first step in a personal-injury lawsuit that Brazil, a partner at Koonz, McKenney, Johnson, DePaolis & Lightfoot, persuaded Matthews to file.
“So I went to see the doctor, and he gave me the lawsuit wardrobeyou know, the knee brace,” continues Matthews. “I had this great big dressing on my leg for a pencil scratch.”
Matthews thought the lawsuit was on course. But then events took a bizarre turn. Matthews says he received a telephone call from someone at Brazil’s law firm. “The person told me they couldn’t take my case because the guy who hit me didn’t have insurance,” recalls Matthews. No sweat: Matthews figured he hadn’t lost anything, so he dismissed the entire episode.
A year later, however, Matthews received a bill from Sniezek in the amount of $495. That was for one office visit, says Matthews. “I called the doctor and told him that I couldn’t pay that bill. [He and Brazil] were working togetherwhy should I have to pay for something I didn’t really want?
“The doctor said I should talk with Harold,” continues Matthews. “So I called him up and he said, ‘Don’t you have insurance?’ Well, the military pays for my medical expenses. But I have to go [to the veterans’ hospital].”
Matthews says Brazil finally said he “would look into it.”
But it doesn’t appear that Brazil looked too hardor felt any responsibility for the debt he had brought on a constituent. Earlier this month, Matthews received another notice from Sniezek attempting to collect the $495. This notice stated that unless the bill were paid “within 15 days, we will assume you purposely ignored this notice and we will refer your account to the credit bureau and collection service.”
Matthews, understandably, is pissed. He can’t get Brazil to return his telephone calls. “I can’t ever get him.”
LL could not reach Sniezek for comment; a receptionist at his office said he was out of town. LL repeatedly called Brazil’s council office last week, each time leaving a message that she was calling in reference to the Matthews case and that she had a copy of his medical bill. LL is still waiting to hear from the at-large councilmember. She wants to hear his side of the story. And she wants to know if he thinks it’s ethical for a councilmember who is an attorney to hustle citizens.
•Last week, as councilmembers continued to dicker over “Plan H,” the redistricting proposal that would redraw the boundaries for the city’s eight wards, Judiciary Square sources say Ward 7’s Kevin Chavous at one point appeared willing to bargain away his newly acquired middle-class Fairlawn population in exchange for the D.C. Jail and a defunct hospital.
Ward 6’s Sharon Ambrose was searching for a way to keep Fairlawn in her ward, although the council had already approved a plan to divide the neighborhood between Wards 7 and 8. Her earlier effort to amend the redistricting proposal had been stymied by Chavous and council Chair Linda Cropp, so Ambrose began private negotiations with Chavous.
Why, you might ask, would Chavous have wanted a jail and a near-shuttered hospital? Not unlike his colleagues’, Chavous’ motives were political: Having D.C. General Hospital in his ward would have allowed him, during the upcoming mayoral campaign, to legitimately demagogue on the issue. Where some see a bankrupt public institution, Chavous sees an Achilles’ heel for Mayor Anthony A. Williamsand votes that Chavous could garner from the hundreds of residents who opposed the closing. Further, two plansone by the National Capital Planning Commission and the other by the local Olympic bid committeereleased within the past year envision development in the area that includes the jail, D.C. General, and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadiumdevelopment Chavous could trumpet in future political campaigns.
But Ambrose is more concerned with blocking any expansion of correctional programs; her constituents recently fought against the location of a halfway house on the D.C. Jail campus. She feels an obligation to protect their interests, sources say. Thus, negotiations ended with the hopes of Fairlawn residents dashed by a jail and a failed hospital. This week, the council gave final approval to Plan H, with only a few amendments.
•Joining a board or commission in the District is fast becoming the best method for landing a job, a lucrative contract, or both. Last year, Jerrily R. Kress, who was chair of the D.C. Zoning Commission, abandoned her post and persuaded her colleagues to appoint her to the salaried position of executive director. Kress and her cohorts said they hadn’t been able to find any other qualified applicants. Although the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics ruled the that commission had not violated any law, it did say the selection of Kress “appeared unfair.”
Timothy L. Jenkins, appointed this week by the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) board of trustees as interim president, appears to have followed the Kress model. Jenkins, who heads Unlimited Visions Multimedia Inc., a technology consulting company, is a former UDC board member who conveniently became a consultant to the board.
Jenkins had been appointed to the board by Williams on August 12, 1999, and his term was to run until May 15, 2003, according to documents provided by the mayor’s office. But he resigned last February. A month later, he began working in a voluntary capacity as a consultant to the board. And on May 1, he became a paid consultant, engaged to evaluate student fees, capital and management planning, and information systems. UDC sources say the contract ends June 30 and is worth the equivalent of $110,000 annually. Jenkins could not begin his paid consultancy for the board immediately, because a District law requires that such arrangements cannot commence until 45 days after the resignation of the official in question.
When the interim presidential search committee decided on Jenkins late last week, UDC sources say, members had not received or reviewed any material to determine if, in fact, Jenkins had satisfactorily completed his work under the contract. Those documents were to have been distributed to the board last weekend. Jenkins, who holds a J.D. from Yale and was previously a visiting law professor at UDC, will assume the $165,000-per-year interim presidency July 1. Board President Charles Ogletree says a permanent UDC leader won’t be selected until next year.
Jenkins defended his selection at a press conference Tuesday. “If you look at the Association of Governing Boards, one of the things it recommends is that for interim president, you select somebody who is an insider, so you don’t waste time.”
This entire affair has LL holding her nose, the stink is so strong. What’s more, LL can’t help but wonder how the new interim president may react when another juicy contract passes before his eyes. Will he be able to resist the temptation to bid for it, or will he jump ship before a permanent leader for the troubled institution is selected? Or will he go back through the revolving door yet again, rejoining the board of trustees after his interim presidency is finished? He said he’s thinking about that, too.
THE MAYOR’S NEW CHIEF?
Judiciary Square sources tell LL that Williams has asked Stan Jackson to become his next chief of staff. Jackson currently serves in
the same capacity under Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi. Previously, he was director of customer service administration at the Office of Tax and Revenue, and he’s been a fixture in the local government since the late ’80s, mayoral sources say. They characterized Jackson as personable and someone who knows the city well.
Speaking through his communications director, Joan Logue-Kinder, the mayor said there was “absolutely no truth” to rumors that he had selected Jackson, who was unavailable for comment. However, Judiciary Square sources say the job is Jackson’s if he wants it and that he’s expected to discuss the offer with his family and decide within the next few days. Jonetta Rose Barras
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