We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
In his well-funded march through the Ward 1 D.C. Council contest last summer, Democratic candidate Jim Graham made liberal use of the oldest rhetorical prop in electoral politics: the full-time representative platform. “He pledged that he would be a full-time councilmember and that he would be leaving the Whitman-Walker Clinic,” recalls Todd Mosley, who finished third in the Sept. 15 Democratic primary, behind Graham and incumbent Frank Smith.
By the time he took over as Ward 1 councilmember on Jan. 2, Graham appeared to have fulfilled his promise: He had resigned as Whitman-Walker’s executive director and moved his Rolodex and personal effects from the clinic’s offices to One Judiciary Square.
The break from previously foresworn outside employment, however, wasn’t as clean as all that. The very day Graham took over his full-time council duties, he also began part-time work as a fundraiser for the clinic under an unpublicized $70,000 per annum contract. “Our officers really wanted to have Jim for fundraising,” says Mark Levin, president of the clinic’s board of directors.
On Monday, three days after LL began calling Graham and Whitman-Walker board members about the contract, Graham resigned from the post, citing workload considerations. “I am so excited about my duties here and so involved in so many issues that I don’t have the time to be a private consultant,” Graham told LL in a phone interview. “This is just another way I want to dedicate myself to this elected position, so I think that’s good news.”
Graham’s desperate attempts at spin are every bit as obvious as his consulting contract was tenebrific. The contract’s inking preceded a period of silence from both Graham’s office and Levin, who himself didn’t disclose the contract until last week’s Whitman-Walker board meetingunder pressure from colleagues. “My understanding was that this was not going to be disclosed to the board until I had a private conversation with Mark Levin regarding this issue,” says board member Ray Chesnick.
Levin scoffs at the suggestion of a cover-up, opting instead for another explanation: “Quite frankly, I didn’t think it was all that important. It was just a fundraising strategy.” When asked whether he had discussed suppressing information on the contract with Graham, Levin responded, “No, not really.”
Whether Graham and Levin tried to conceal the contract and whether the consulting gig marked a betrayal of the candidate’s summer pledges are secondary to the conflict-of-interest concerns involved in the deal. Whitman-Walker currently has several contracts with the District government, covering everything from substance abuse treatment to a wide variety of social services for HIV-positive people. As a member of a council newly dedicated to contract oversight, Graham would have faced an unappealing choice between recusals and ethical transgressions. “And pigs could fly, too,” said Graham. “I never reached a conflict of interest….I haven’t worked less than 60 hours a week at the council since I started.”
When asked about the terms of the contract, Graham proved he’s as ready to split hairs as just about any of the technical whizzes who appear before the council. Although Levin, an unabashed Graham supporter, acknowledged that the contract had called for fundraising services, Graham came up with another category: “What the contract had me doing was developing an endowment plan to increase endowment of the clinic and work with development and communications staff,” he said, offering the official longhand definition of “fundraising.”
And the councilmember objected to the characterizations of compensation levels in the contract. “It is not a $70,000 deal,” he said. “There is a cap of $40,000 per year, and in the event that people were thrilled with my work, there could be a bonus of up to $30,000,” he said. Which it doesn’t take Carl Friedrich Gauss to know adds up to $70,000.
“It’s basically a guaranteed bonus,” said a Whitman-Walker board member.
Judging from the remarks of Levin, the powers that be at Whitman-Walker are already thrilled with Graham. “When you get Jim in a room with five people to talk about the epidemic, to talk about HIV, he makes you cry,” said Levin. “He sure makes me cry.”
STEALTH PAY HIKE
On March 3 of last year, D.C. councilmembers decided that their annual salary of $80,600 was plenty for a part-time job. They voted to impose a salary freeze effective until amended by subsequent legislation.
Then came the unseasonably mild winter of 1998-1999. By the time the 13th council session opened on Jan. 4, the freeze had melted into a nearly $12,000 raise, to $92,000, available to the seven councilmembers elected to office in November 1998: Sharon Ambrose, Kathy Patterson, Phil Mendelson, Vincent Orange, Linda Cropp, Graham, and David Catania. But in the great tradition of legislators too chicken to ask the public for a raise, the council apparently didn’t want anyone to know about the salary upgrade.
And at least three of the eligible raise recipientsAmbrose, Patterson, and Mendelsonwaived their pay hikes. “I couldn’t take a raise that I couldn’t explain to my constituents,” says Ambrose.
Indeed, Ambrose would need a platoon of helpers from the Office of Corporation Counsel to elucidate the technicalities behind the council’s stealth raise. Under current law, the salary of the council chairman, Cropp, is pegged to the highest-earning director of a District agency. That provision entitles Cropp to an annual take of $155,000, which is the salary of Police Chief Charles Ramsey. Nonetheless, Cropp decided to peg her salary to the $102,000 package earned by D.C. Department of Recreation and Parks Director Betty Jo Gaines. “That was what she felt the market would bear,” says a council source, who requested anonymity.
Under the home rule charter, councilmembers are entitled to receive annual salaries of $10,000 less than the council chairman, making the compensation package a cool $92,000, plus bennies.
An unusual pact between councilmembers and Chairman Cropp accounts for the two-month official silence on the raises. According to several councilmembers, Cropp asked her colleagues to hold off on public pronouncements on the initiative so that she could put the changes into writing. On Monday afternoon, she circulated legislation to codify the raises but declined comment on the action. “I don’t think she’ll have anything to say on it now,” says Cropp spokesperson Reggie Sanders. “The legislation speaks for itself.”
Cropp’s bill is a belated attempt to reply to a request from Ambrose and Patterson, who in a Jan. 25 letter urged her to take the pay raise to the public. In the letter, the pair blasted council chief lawyer Charlotte Brookins Hudson for denying that the pay freeze had ever taken effect. “The convoluted legislative history, in which we froze but didn’t really freeze our pay, [and] the absence of public debate on this pay increase…constitutes a violation of the public trust,” the letter reads.
Over the past two months, councilmembers have made a point of exercising killer oversight of District agencies, calling top-level bureaucrats on the carpet for everything from fixing parking tickets to writing poorly researched nuisance-property strategies. Perhaps they’d gain a bit more credibility if they applied the same accountability standards to their own colleagues.
D.C. developer T. Conrad Monts could use a good political consultant. The developer of the controversial $52 million Wilson Building lease/renovation plan ignored a January subpoena to appear before the D.C. Council. The snub helped ignite a move, supported by Mayor Anthony A. Williams, to kill the deal altogether.
Now, just as the city’s political establishment is skewering Monts on impromptu spits all across town, the developer has decided to ask the District for concessions on yet another development scheme. Last Thursday, Monts showed up to ask Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6A for permission to broaden his proposal to plop an office-cum-hotel complex over I-395, by 2nd and D Streets NW.
News of the proposal drew a predictable response from councilmembers. “I don’t want to do anything with Mr. Monts that involves the public trust,” says Catania. “It’s like drinking and driving.”
Catania would have to endure a long hangover before ever seeing Monts break ground on the project. The developer first secured development air rights for the site back in 1990 and has obtained periodic extensions of those rights, which expire every two years. Each time, it seems, he just needs some more time to put this blockbuster development together. “We should have yanked those air rights years ago,” says Ambrose.
Downtown housing proponents will no doubt join Ambrose once they get their hands on Monts’ amendment to the 1990 proposal. In his original scheme, Monts planned to erect three office buildings and a hotel on a deck over I-395, plus an apartment building just south of Massachusetts Avenue NW. Now, Monts is lobbying for a more profitable configuration: four office buildings and a hotel on the deck. In a nod to the residential goals of the original plan, Monts is proposing to move the apartment building north of Massachusetts Avenueand thus out of downtown.
The modification adheres to a storied tradition among downtown developers, who would sooner relocate their offices to Good Hope Road than build dwellings downtown. “I absolutely believe we need housing downtown in order to get critical density to make housing viable,” says Mendelson, who has long fought the zoning practice of “linkage,” whereby developers locate housing projects in far-off neighborhoods in exchange for concessions on residential requirements on downtown office projects.
In fairness to Monts, the amendment would move the residential component of the project only a short distance from the original site. And the delay for a project of this magnitude is understandableafter all, it would entail building an enormous bridge across an open freeway expanse.
Mitigating considerations, however, aren’t swaying Monts’ chief critic in District government: Catania. In his inaugural speech, Catania looked out at the crowd at the atrium of the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center and issued a proclamation on the gravy train that for decades had fed associates of Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. “Those days are gone,” said Catania. He was speaking of folks like Monts.
“This town ain’t big enough for the both of us,” says Catania, who has “no intentions of allowing Conrad Monts to move forward on any other projects involving the city.”
John Wayne rhetoric notwithstanding, Catania may not get his chance to heave Monts out of the council’s saloon doorsat least not on this deal. The decision on the modifications rests with the D.C. Zoning Commission, which will hold a hearing on the matter on March 4. Catania, Ambrose, & Co. may explore a revocation of the air rights lease that Monts signed with the Department of Housing and Community Development, but the terms of that agreementand the city’s revocation rightsare unclear.
In preparation for its hearing on the Monts deal, Zoning Commission staffers should allow several hours to hear testimony from the project’s opponents, who are dying for an audience. “They cut us right out of it,” says the Rev. James Terrell, pastor of the 2nd Baptist Church at 3rd and H Streets NW. “They have made every effort to keep the community out of the decision. It’s amazing to me that no one’s paying any attention to this.”
Point well taken: None of the elected officials interviewed by LL for this story knew the nitty-gritty of Monts’ plan.
Neither, apparently, did Monts’ lawyer. Calls to Monts’ office were referred to lawyer Richard Gross, who has been busily spinning for Monts on the Wilson Building. “I don’t have any information on that to offer you,” he said.
The hearing could also provide a moot-court proving ground for ruddy-cheeked Georgetown law students, whose school is citing legal objections to virtually every aspect of the Monts proposal. One of the modified plan’s new office building would land right across the street from the Georgetown University Law Center, which would have welcomed a residential building.
Bad blood between the university and Monts, however, goes back further than the developer’s ongoing quest for modification: In 1991, Georgetown extracted a number of concessions from Monts regarding building heights and the character of the development plan. “We wanted more open space and less intense development,” said Maureen Dwyer, a partner at Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick & Lane, who is representing the university in the case. “But the changes we agreed to have never appeared in the developer’s plans.”
LL sees a pattern here.CP
Got a tip for Loose Lips? Call (202) 332-2100, ext. 302, 24 hours a day. And visit Loose Lips on the Web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.