If Dorothy Brizill and Gary Imhoff were journalists, we’d be saying they’re on a roll. Last month, the activist couple who run the Web site/e-mail forum D.C. Watch almost singlehandedly changed the story line behind the District’s school board referendum, transforming the question from a dry issue of political organization to a much more troubling story about money and political power.
Just weeks before the scheduled vote, Brizill and Imhoff helped break the news that D.C. Agenda, a nonprofit group supporting Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ stance in favor of a partially appointed school board, had improperly accepted thousands of dollars in donations. The ethics complaint Brizill subsequently filed was a big story, showing up in Washington Times and Washington Post editorials. The stench of sleaze was one reason this paper’s Loose Lips column opposed the referendum.
Another big story, though, has gone unexamined: Why was a couple with few resources other than a Web site and a Rolodex able to scoop every paper in town?
It’s not as though Brizill and Imhoff did anything we couldn’t have done. They got a tip. They made some calls. And they checked some documents. Simple.
“Someone called me in May,” Brizill explains, “and said someone else wanted to talk to me on condition of anonymity. And that person detailed to me a meeting that the mayor had in his office where he detailed this nonprofit organization and off-the-books fundraising. The one name they mentioned was Terry Golden,” a member of the control board’s Education Advisory Committee as well as the powerful business-planning group the Federal City Council.
Then, Brizill continues, Imhoff called over to Golden’s office asking how to donate to the vote-yes campaign. “They said to call D.C. Agenda. Told him how to make the check payable to D.C. Agenda.” Because D.C. Agenda is a nonprofit—and contributions to it are therefore tax-deductible—it’s not allowed to raise money for a political campaign. When she hoofed it over to the city’s Office of Campaign Finance, Brizill discovered that D.C. Agenda’s leaders also hadn’t filed the proper papers for it to be a political campaign committee, says Imhoff.
For a reporter, it might have been a great “gotcha” moment. But the couple’s next step wasn’t filing a story. It was filing a complaint with the city’s Board of Elections and Ethics. By June 16, the nonprofit was returning $80,000 in donations, according to an affidavit filed by D.C. Agenda President John H. McKoy. Two days later, the controversy popped up in the Washington Post’s metro section.
Advocates, of course, show up in campaign-finance stories all the time. Nationally, outfits like Washington’s Center for Public Integrity have considerable budgets to research, publish, advertise, and otherwise lead reporters to money-and-politics stories. The Center for Responsive Politics’ opensecrets.org Web site lets people track donations by donor, profession, or ZIP code.
Likewise, when Brizill and Imhoff aren’t busy making phone calls to would-be illegal fundraisers, they’re filling the D.C. Watch Web site with links to a variety of documents, from the new city fire chief’s hiring agreement to rulings by the Board of Elections and Ethics. “D.C. Watch is essentially set up as a good-government organization that concentrates on issues of governmental honesty and accountability,” says Imhoff. “The Web site is the public face, a way of getting information out.”
That description, of course, may be describing the organization a bit too broadly. They may model some of their work after bigger-time watchdog groups, but in the small, underscrutinized world of District politics, good-government vigilantes like Brizill and Imhoff are as close as it gets to an ethics juggernaut. At heart, there’s not much to D.C. Watch besides its two members, youngish Columbia Heights retirees who have enough time and money to gumshoe through city politics—so long as they don’t have to pay for a lawyer, a staff, an office, or any other trappings of established think-tankdom.
“We have deliberately not raised any funds,” says Imhoff. “We have not done any fundraising and are completely self-supported on this. A primary rule of journalism is ‘Follow the money.’ That is what a lot of good-government organizations do. That gives a sense of what direction the politics are going.”
Over the years, they’ve proven pretty successful at pointing out that direction. Earlier in the school-referendum campaign, Brizill went to the Board of Elections and Ethics with a complaint—previously reported by Channel 4’s Tom Sherwood—that Williams had used city employees to help organize a schoolhouse rally in favor of his position. The board ruled against the mayor.
“They really are on top of things,” says a daily reporter who writes about some of the fights Brizill and Imhoff have found themselves in the middle of. “Dorothy goes to numerous meetings. She takes copious notes.”
And those copious notes, in turn, force D.C. to take watchdog Brizill’s bark fairly seriously. Which may be a mixed blessing. In the past couple of years, D.C. Watch has placed itself outside of politics. But before that, Brizill ran—unsuccessfully—for elected office as a councilmember from Ward 1, and she vocally involved herself in fights over things like the new convention center. During the 1998 mayoral campaign, D.C. Watch staged an event at which then-candidate Williams swore allegiance to a series of clean-government principles. It wasn’t an endorsement, but the Williams people acted as if it were something close.
D.C.’s watchdogging vacuum, though, means that politically charged figures like Brizill and Imhoff are the only full-time investigators out there. The national groups who might otherwise push the local media to do stories—or remind their newbie-heavy metro news staffs just who all the players are—more or less ignore D.C. And no one else is sticking the government’s own documents up on the Web. “Common Cause, if you call them, they can tell you what’s right and what’s wrong,” says the reporter. “But they aren’t necessarily putting it on the Web site for your regular reader to read.”
For their part, Brizill and Imhoff wouldn’t mind having someone else out there with them. “Gary and I would sit in our car parked in front of campaign headquarters,” Brizill says of their efforts to find out whether the mayor was using city staffers to support his referendum. “And you could see the D.C. government vehicles and the D.C. government employees come and go at will. That’s the kind of thing a reporter should have been doing. I’m visible—they know me. We needed someone they didn’t expect. After a while, people would come up to me and say, ‘Hi, Dorothy.’” —Michael Schaffer