Longtime D.C. lobbyist David Wilmot has a piece of business that often takes him to a familiar spot—the 11th floor of One Judiciary Square. His client, Margo Briggs, president of Executive Security and Engineering Technology, is seeking nearly $2 million in back pay from a late-’80s contract to provide security at D.C. government agencies. To complicate matters, the company owes an estimated $1 million in back taxes—a liability that would not exist if the District had paid Briggs in full, according to Wilmot. The 22-year influence-peddling vet is wrestling with mayoral staffers to come up with some kind of compensation for his client.
Negotiating with high-level bureaucrats over big-money matters on behalf of local companies is old hat for Wilmot. One part of this particular transaction, however, marks a departure from years of tradition: Wilmot has yet to get an audience with the new mayor.
An unnamed aide to Mayor Anthony A. Williams says that something more than scheduling snafus accounts for the disconnect between the city’s top official and its top lobbyist. “We’ve pretty much marginalized him,” says the aide.
That’s an enormous job—one that requires as much effort as bringing economic development to the neighborhoods or perhaps keeping Department of Human Services employees away from the shredder. Prior to Williams’ ascension, the mayoral suite served as a working office of sorts for Wilmot, a longtime tennis partner and confidant of Suspect-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. In compiling his A-list of corporate clients, Wilmot traded on his access to the former mayor, and his claim would have passed the most rigorous truth-in-advertising standards. Legend has it that Wilmot camped outside Barry’s office, and when a break appeared in the mayor’s schedule—often, that is—he stepped into the breach, docket in hand.
Under the new regime, Wilmot doesn’t lurk in the mayoral suite, and the breaks in Williams’ schedule generally occur inside his heavily armed Lincoln Navigator. That leaves Wilmot mired in discussions with staffers. Like any good lobbyist, though, Wilmot insists that an appointment with the mayor is never more than a phone call away. “The mayor has been very responsive and listened and acted appropriately when necessary,” says Wilmot, who says he has met one-on-one with Williams.
Asked to confirm Wilmot’s claim, Williams Chief of Staff Abdusalam Omer replied, “Never.”
“My sense is that Wilmot gets the same treatment that the rest of us get,” says a D.C. councilmember who has cited the mayor for his aloofness. And an administration official says that the racial politics of Williams’ administration don’t work in the lobbyist’s favor, either: “With this mayor, it doesn’t matter what color you are.”
But Williams’ colorblindness hasn’t impaired Wilmot’s access to green. In the first half of 1999, Wilmot raked in $185,000 from lobbying alone, a figure that doesn’t account for all the D.C.-related legal work done by his firm, Harmon & Wilmot PC. For all of 1995, the first year of Barry’s last term in office, Wilmot pulled down $236,000 from lobbying.
Of course, of course: The city’s economy has never been hotter than it is now, and businesses are actually heeding Williams’ pledges to create a friendly commercial climate here. Whether Wilmot would be able to repeat his trick of doing well in a downturn is another question. “I don’t know what impact the economy is having, but when everybody is doing better, everybody is doing better,” says Wilmot.
True, even for a guy more closely allied with the ancien regime than Marie Antoinette. If anyone was to suffer from the stigma of association with Barry, Wilmot was clearly the front-runner. It was Wilmot, after all, who stood by the ex-mayor during his prison sentence for drug possession. It was Wilmot who helped bail out the ex-mayor when the Office of Campaign Finance nosed into his 1994 campaign’s books. And it was Wilmot who defended the ex-mayor against a Washington Post report alleging wrongdoing in securing renovations for his Ward 8 home.
“I’m proud of my relationship with Marion Barry,” says Wilmot. “He remains a friend, and I don’t run away from friends.”
Wilmot’s clients are showing him the very same affection. Instead of demoting Wilmot following the depletion of his mayoral juice, they appear to have elevated him to an even loftier standing. In education, universities select emeritus professors—old, thinky hacks who get paid just to drink coffee with people. The same thing happens in pro sports: The San Francisco 49ers, for example, hired nearly geriatric “genius” Bill Walsh just to flash his white hair at brainstorming sessions. Wilmot has arrived at a comparable station in the lobbying industry.
For proof, talk to the folks at Fannie Mae, who paid Wilmot $20,000 for the first half of 1999. Just what did that investment fetch? “I think of him more as a very valuable adviser than anything,” says David Jeffers, Fannie Mae’s vice president for corporate relations. “I don’t recall the last time he was lobbying for us on a specific issue.”
Next year, LL advises Fannie Mae to bargain a bit harder for Wilmot’s “roving adviser” package. After all, the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., paid just $19,000 for the same service. Emily Vetter, the association’s president, said the toughest issue she’s dealt with this year is getting a sublease from the city’s property management office for the new hospitality charter school—an issue that Wilmot did not play a major role in. “I can’t tell you how many hours I spent on that,” says Vetter.
Every discussion with a Wilmot client turns into a digression on the opaque channels of governance in the District. “If you’re going to engage in an effort in this city, wouldn’t you want a road map instead of just driving down the road?” says Ted Trabue, manager of government relations at PEPCO, which paid Wilmot $25,000 in the first half of 1999. “The process of moving things through the council, the mayor, the control board, and Congress can be a difficult one to understand.”
And just because Wilmot may have learned that process as a friend of Barry’s shouldn’t taint him with the politics of the past, according to the lobbyist’s backers. “If you were in business then,” says Vetter, “you were involved [with the Barry administration]. You weren’t necessarily in bed with them.”
Wilmot contends that the Barry stigmatization has as much to do with his skin color as with his actions. “I can give you a list of white people who benefited from the Barry years but never got put down that way,” says Wilmot. “What’s amazing to me is that I’ve never had a government contract, and I’ve never been on the government payroll.” (Oops! Wilmot chairs the board of Individual Development Inc., which receives $8 million annually from D.C. to manage group homes for the mentally retarded.)
And just as Wilmot plays up his access to Williams, he plays down his association with Barry. “I’d call and make an appointment,” recalls Wilmot. “I didn’t just pop in and see [Barry].” The stories about his tendency to squat outside Barry’s office, suggests Wilmot, stem from a tactic that he has employed against all kinds of elected officials and bureaucrats.
“I will wait a person out when they don’t want to deal with difficult issues,” says Wilmot. “I practiced that when Mayor [Walter] Washington was there, when Marion Barry was there….I haven’t had the chance to try it yet on Williams, but I will if it’s necessary. I’m too old to change.”
Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Vanessa Dale Burns needs to borrow a few words from Mayor Williams’ lexicon. As everyone who’s ever attended one of his press conferences knows, the mayor likes to inspire his subordinates with management talk heavy on words like “accountability,” “management goals,” “customer service,” and other favorites from the 1999 CFO’s Dictionary.
Burns, on the other hand, tested out a less modern vocabulary on a group of clerical workers in DPW’s transportation division last Friday. Here are a few alleged excerpts:
* “I’m not sure what the fuck is going on, but you are to report to work at 8:15 a.m.”
* “This motherfucking shit is not going to be put up with.”
* “When I call down here and the bitch isn’t down here [to answer the phone], I am not going to deal with it.”
Those quotes come from a DPW source present at the meeting and from a colleague’s anonymous memo now wending its way through the agency. According to the sources, Burns was fucking pissed off that transportation division workers were unavailable to help answer the goddamn phones in the short-staffed director’s suite. To voice her concerns to her charges, Burns allegedly stormed the transportation office and yelled orders from the hallway that a meeting would be held in five minutes. Then she swore her fucking head off.
“In my opinion,” reads the memo, “her conduct was reflective of a low life, street like, uneducated, whose only means of expression is to indulge in gutter language filled with verbal and emotional abuse. Her only accomplishment today was to demoralize the entire work force….”
Jerry Hackney, an official with the American Federation of Government Employees who represents DPW line workers, says Burns’ conduct prompted five employee complaints that will escalate to full-fledged union grievances. “She has a terrible mouth,” Hackney says of the DPW director. “She speaks to people without any type of respect. A number of people have told me that she’s said things in meetings that I don’t want to repeat.”
The complainants refuse to speak on the record about Burns’ outburst, perhaps for fear that they’ll be punished with another fucking tirade. “She came down here without any shoes on—she came down here barefoot. And her hair was all over the place,” says an employee who attended the meeting. “She looked like a wild woman.”
In an interview with goddamn LL, Burns conceded, “Some of the words I used were inappropriate, and I apologizes to those employees as well as to the mayor. I was just trying to make sure that we get a dollar’s worth of performance for each dollar of taxpayers’ money.” Fucking right!
* The elected school board has demonstrated what happens to a body that’s hopelessly divided and whose members can’t stop sniping at one another. But what happens to a board with just the opposite traits—complete unanimity and harmony? To find out, LL attended the Dec. 8 meeting of the Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees (ETEBT), the appointed panel created in 1996 by the control board to assume oversight responsibilities from the discredited elected board.
Aside from assembling the most awkward acronym in D.C. governance, the control board produced a proud historical tribute to the Soviet Central Committee. The ETEBT meeting consisted essentially of two presentations—one by Assistant Superintendent Anne Gay on special education, and another by schools CFO Donald Rickford on the ongoing teacher payroll crisis. As any activist will tell you, those issues are the most pressing in D.C. education today—packed full of enough incompetence and mismanagement to keep a lively discussion going for hours. “There’s so many issues,” says special education lawyer Tanya Harvey, “I wouldn’t know where to start.”
Perhaps that’s the very problem that bedeviled the nine ETEBT members in attendance, who mustered only one question.
The closest the board came to oversight in its marathon 35-minute session was this critique of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman by board member Nate Howard: “I see excitement and pride in the schools,” said Howard. “I see lots of teachers and parents buying into the reforms. It’s a great feeling in the schools.” Ackerman, a board member herself, smiled.
* Mayor Williams spent much of last week smarting over the “personal” wounds inflicted Dec. 7 by D.C. councilmembers in derailing his plan to fund bonuses for unionized workers. Last Friday night, the mayor signaled that he still hadn’t gotten over the hurt, as he stiffed on a commitment to appear with Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham at a “Neighborhood Action” event for lower Georgia Avenue. The mayor’s people told him an “emergency” had prompted Williams’ no-show. “I’ve been given no information on the nature of the emergency,” says Graham, who adds that handling the event without its co-host felt “a little awkward.” Williams spokesperson Peggy Armstrong could not be reached for comment. CP
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