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The “Retail Electric Competition and Consumer Protection Act of 1999” was a pivotal piece of legislation for the Potomac Electric Power Co. (PEPCO).
Intended to deregulate the local market for electric power, the bill included language that would allow PEPCO to fulfill its longtime corporate goal of getting out of the electricity-generation business—a segment of the power industry with declining profits—and focusing instead on high-margin activities, such as transmitting and distributing the electricity. The company dispatched its best lobbyists to the D.C. Council and its most eloquent flacks to local radio stations to explain just how the legislation would help electricity consumers.
PEPCO also dispatched a more persuasive agent—cash—to the administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams. No, the power giant didn’t offer the mayor a shady consulting contract or offer to upgrade the parquet floor in his Foggy Bottom apartment. Instead, it chose a more direct path to the mayor’s heart: a $40,000 donation to fund his Nov. 20 “Neighborhood Action” summit, which registered the civic priorities of the 3,000 District residents who showed up for the event.
A month after the summit, the council signed off on the electric bill and passed it along to Williams, who did likewise. Any day now, Congress will clear away the legislation’s final approval hurdle.
PEPCO issues the standard corporate disclaimers on the nexus between its legislative agenda and the dispersal of its donations. “This was not a contribution; it was sponsorship,” says PEPCO spokesperson Makini Street. “It’s like sponsoring any other activity, like…a parade.”
Except that the drum major in this particular spectacle can regulate how much profit local companies extract from the District’s steamrolling economy. From utility cuts to development projects to business taxes, the range of business matters decided by the mayor makes him a logical beneficiary of corporate largess.
Likewise, Williams’ fondness for Neighborhood Action makes the citizen-participation program a logical earmark for business contributors eager to please the mayor. The event was one of the few unqualified political successes of his administration; its 3,000 attendees made up the closest thing Williams has to a political army.
Williams is still talking about the event. A couple of weeks ago, he stood before a room of reporters and announced with complete mayoral earnestness that the initiative had received an award from the International Association for Public Participation. (According to association flack Douglas Sarno, Williams’ initiative edged out such projects as the vaunted Hanford Openness Workshops in Richland, Wash., the Oak Ridge Reservations Stakeholder Initiatives on Long-Term Stewardship in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the Residential Town Platt Secondary Plan in Fredericton, New Brunswick.) Then, for his profile on CBS’s 60 Minutes, Williams picked his very own Neighborhood Action T-shirt over a wardrobe of more attractive options—his flannel plaids, for example, or his fishy T-shirt.
He might be a little slower to brag if that T-shirt also listed all of the vested interests that sponsored the summit. Local businesses from PEPCO to Ideal Electronic Security Inc. chipped in $120,000 to print the T-shirts and supply the fine pastas and petits fours that attracted residents to the event. Nonprofit contributions and D.C. taxpayers split the rest of the program’s $518,000 tab.
And the opportunities to play good corporate citizen/curry favor with the mayor’s office didn’t conclude with last year’s event. Neighborhood Action, as it turns out, is the Cats of the Williams administration, a show that continues this year with a goal of bringing 4,000 additional D.C.-ers into similar let’s-all-participate meetings. This fall, the administration will sponsor a Neighborhood Action event for 2,000 D.C. youth, along with 39 neighborhood confabs to follow in the fall. Rounding up all the locals occupies Line No. 1 on the “scorecard” of mayoral Chief of Staff Abdusalam Omer.
“This is going to be a continuing dialogue between the government and the public,” says Omer, who reports that he’ll need another $500,000 to carry out his mandate. “Ten or 15 years from now, this will be institutionalized, and if you’re the mayor, you’ll be expected to do Neighborhood Action.”
The Neighborhood Action saga is just one more case study in the futility of existing regulations at keeping corporate money away from politicians. As LL wrote in a previous column, supporters of Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis can express their appreciation for her council performance by funneling contributions of any amount to Southeastern University, where she serves as president.
To the delight of Williams, Neighborhood Action operates in the same permissive environment as Jarvis’ school. Contribution limits overseen by the city’s Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) don’t govern the initiative, because it is not—overtly, at least—a vehicle for re-election or constituent services and presumably doesn’t line Williams’ pockets. An independent nonprofit organization handles corporate contributions.
Mayoral self-restraint, then, becomes the sole check on corporate check-writing. “He just has to be careful of the perception of impropriety, and that would be accepting money from a company about to get a benefit from the government,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans.
The company names on the Neighborhood Action donor list match many of the usual suspects that crowd the file cabinets over at OCF. Herewith a sampling of contributors, along with official and unofficial motives for donations:
* Bell Atlantic ($23,514)
Official Motive: The company wants “to help the city to refine what it needs to do to move forward,” says spokesperson Sandra Arnette.
Unofficial Motive: Bell Atlantic officials themselves no doubt lose track of all their issues at play downtown. Over the past year, there were the cell towers in Rock Creek Park, regulation of utility cuts, and universal phone user fees to pay for 911 service.
* Clark Construction ($2,500)
Official Motive: “This is in keeping with our policy to support the communities in which we live and do business,” says Clark spokesperson Louise Pulizzi.
Unofficial Motive: The builder of the Mount Vernon Square convention center is wise to make down payments on cordial treatment from D.C. officialdom. Once the new monolith is completed, after all, there’ll be a nice contract waiting for the makeover of the old one. Another multi-million-dollar price tag will be attached to the construction of the new Department of Employment Services. There’s also a new Metrorail station planned for New York Avenue, a mammoth design/construction project tailor-made for Clark.
* Crawford/Edgewood Developers ($1,000)
Official Motive: “I’ve got to give something back. I can’t just take all my life,” says Crawford/Edgewood President H.R. Crawford.
Unofficial Motive: Crawford insists that he doesn’t “do anything directly” with the mayor’s office. Perhaps, but he does deal directly with folks who report to Williams. The Department of Housing and Community Development, for instance, has assisted Crawford with his Ward 8 housing projects.
Of all the heavy hitters on the Neighborhood Action donor list, the most baffling entry is the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW), which somehow found $9,000 to divert from trash pickup and snow removal to mayoral PR. DPW Director Vanessa Dale Burns may not know how to keep the streets in passable condition, but she needs no lessons on office politics.
Whatever their expectations, Neighborhood Action contributors can’t buy their way into his boss’s office, according to Omer. “Will they have face time with the mayor and preferential treatment here? No,” says Omer. “Would I call back a company that is supporting the mayor’s mission? The answer is yes.”
Monitoring the flow of cash on a company-by-company basis, however, ignores the larger statement that Williams is making in opening his most precious initiative to corporate dollars: This mayor will allow business pretty much free rein in the District. Witness his unwillingness to impose street-cut fees on telecommunications companies and his acquiescence to the pending destruction of historic downtown’s F Street by office-building developers.
The 3,000 civic-minded locals at the November summit would have surely been livid about the prospect of unfettered street disruptions for cable firms like Starpower—owned by summit sponsor PEPCO. But that dissonance is the price D.C. will pay for electing someone who promised to be the voice of grass-roots good government and to simultaneously make the city safe for business. Advertised as a venue for the former, Neighborhood Action is actually a fabulous vehicle for the latter.
* One year ago, amid revelations that Mayor Williams had violated campaign finance laws, Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson and other like-minded reformers complained that OCF’s measly fines didn’t adequately punish delinquent politicos. Those gripes won’t likely get aired again in the aftermath of the office’s recent actions against local Democratic Party organizations. On April 27, OCF fined the Democratic State Committee, the party’s official city organ, $1,450 for missing four revenue-expenditure reporting deadlines. That’s well over one-third of the committee’s $4,048 in cash on hand.
The Ward 1 Democrats organization, which has just $3,545, received a fine of $1,390 for similar filing deadline transgressions. A call to Ward 1 Dems Chair Dee Hunter confirmed the leadership crisis suggested by the fine.
“This is totally Norman’s fault,” said Hunter, referring to Ward 1 Dems Treasurer Tony Norman. “He failed to file the reports and failed to notify us.”
What about the chair’s oversight and the buck-stops-here principle? “He got the notices; I didn’t get the notices,” responded Hunter, who proceeded to call his treasurer a “bumbling idiot.”
Norman counters that Hunter “has been incompetent for the last two years. He hasn’t called any meetings and hasn’t done anything.” Norman also says he didn’t file the reports because Hunter “hasn’t involved the treasurer in the organization.”
Nonetheless, Hunter says he may bring legal action against Norman.
LL’s nominee for co-defendant: Dee Hunter.
* Last year, Republican At-Large Councilmember David Catania fought a high-profile battle against Mayor Williams to ram through the Tax Parity Act that he co-sponsored with Evans. That fight featured endless allegations of bad faith and even some ad hominem mudslinging between Catania and his 11th-floor nemesis.
Now budgetary constraints have raised cries to scale back the 1999 tax cuts and have forced Catania to undertake a low-profile effort to rescue them. Over the past two weeks, Catania has sat at his desk comparing every last line of the 1999 budget book with the 2000 version. The green-shaded sleuthing, according to the councilmember, has turned up $36 million in unexplained funding increases from last year to this. “My goal has been to save last year’s tax cuts,” says the councilmember, who wants the city to keep the “commitment” it made in the Tax Parity Act.
Evans credits his colleague with covering for other highly paid public servants. “He’s done the analysis we’d hoped the CFO’s office had done,” says Evans. “As we look into this stuff and call people on it, they say, ‘Aw, gee, you’re right.’”
The council is hoping that the $36 million of budgetary softness will help them save last year’s tax package, approve a new $6.5 million earned-income tax credit for working families, and deliver on the mayor’s fully funded education program. The prospect alone has prompted something unprecedented in mayor-council relations: a compliment for Catania from on high. “He’s working hard and earning his salary,” says Omer.
* Perhaps it’s because he’s spent the entire day making nice with reporters, Capitol Hill types, and councilmembers. Or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t have to look you in the eye. But when Mayor Williams gets on his computer to answer constituent mail, he takes on a bit more edge. D.C. resident Tom Button, for example, recently sent Williams a pretty tired inquiry: Surrounding jurisdictions pay less in taxes but still furnish better services than the District. How could this be?
“It’s a long story,” replied Williams.CP
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