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At-large D.C. Councilmember Harold Brazil usually finds himself the center of attention at gatherings of the local business community. After all, Brazil, a former PEPCO exec, has built his D.C. Council career catering to developers, law firms, and the hospitality industry.
But the third-term councilmember became the invisible man at last week’s 60th anniversary dinner of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. When the several city councilmembers in attendance were recognized from the dais, Brazil’s name was omitted from the list, even though he had been working the crowd directly in front of the stage just moments before.
Some business leaders suspect the slight may have been intentional. Three days earlier, Brazil had infuriated Chamber leaders when he sided with the council majority in rejecting proposals to cap workers’ disability benefits in the District and lower the insurance premiums D.C. businesses now pay.
Outgoing Chamber President A. Scott Bolden had made reform of the District’s workers’ compensation law a priority of his year at the helm of the 1,100-member group. Bolden insists insurance rates must be lowered to entice new businesses into the District and keep existing ones from moving out.
Brazil actively sought the Chamber’s endorsement during his recent mayoral run, and Chamber and council sources say the lawmaker had promised to recuse himself from voting on the controversial proposals. Brazil’s conflict of interest was akin to Sen. Lauch Faircloth’s (R-N.C.) voting on the Pork Producers Welfare Act of 1998.
Brazil works for the city’s premier workers’ comp firm, Koonz McKinney Johnson Depaolis & Lightfoot, which has won multi-million-dollar judgments against employers on behalf of injured workers. A slash in insurance rates would have reduced the awards and compensation Brazil and his partners could expect from future lawsuits. At a mayoral candidates’ debate at the Warner Theatre in July, Brazil acknowledged the conflict and pledged to stay out of the fray on worker’s comp.
Brazil’s boss, Joe Koonz, lobbied the council against Chamber-backed legislation sponsored by Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans to cut monthly benefits by 25 percent and limit partially disabled workers to no more than 500 weeks of benefits. When the council voted on the issue at its Nov. 10 session, Koonz sat in the front of the council chambers.
Some council observers interpreted Koonz’s presence as a reminder to Brazil that he needed to honor his commitment to his boss and forget about his commitment to the Chamber.
“I’ve never seen anyone skirt the line that closely,” commented a council colleague, adding that Brazil should have requested an opinion from the D.C. Corporation Counsel on the propriety of his vote.
Koonz and the trial lawyers backed the compromise fashioned by Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, which passed on a 10-2 vote. Like other proposals, Patterson’s initiative cuts monthly benefits by 25 percent, but it places no limit on the length of time an injured worker can collect them. The Chamber estimates that the compromise will reduce workers’ comp insurance costs to D.C. businesses by a mere 2 percent. Patterson claims insurance costs will go down by at least 9 percent.
The National Council on Compensation Insurance estimates the Patterson bill will lower costs by slightly more than 2 percent.
Evans, who received the Chamber’s endorsement in this year’s Democratic mayoral primary, said his package of amendments would have cut insurance rates by 21 percent, bringing the premiums on District businesses closer to the lower rates paid by Virginia and Maryland businesses. Only D.C., Michigan, and New York place no limits on the length of time injured workers can receive benefits.
On two key Evans amendments, the Chamber’s position failed on 6-5 votes. Chamber leaders say that if Brazil had abstained, they would have had a chance. “I think it’s just incredible that Councilmember Brazil would participate,” says Bolden.
Bolden & Co. were also counting on a yes vote from Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith, who had promised to support benefit caps last summer in his unsuccessful bid for re-election against challenger Jim Graham. The Chamber expressed its appreciation by paying for ads on the sides of Metro buses running through Ward 1 that touted Smith’s re-election.
However, Smith had also promised the trial lawyers and the unions he would side with Koonz & Co. and vote against the Chamber-backed proposal. Last week, Smith kept his commitment to the trial lawyers and snubbed the Chamber.
Since Smith is leaving the council, business leaders don’t seem nearly as upset with him as they are with Brazil, who has already stated he will seek re-election in two years. Brazil also wants to keep his chairmanship of the council’s Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee, which oversees legislation important to the business community.
“These people are furious at him,” one attendee noted during last week’s Chamber dinner.
Brazil can afford to have the Chamber mad at him, but he can’t afford to get on the wrong side of his boss, since no self-respecting trial lawyer can live on just the meager $80,000 annual salary a councilmember makes.
TAKING AIM AT THE
BOARD OF ELECTIONS
Jesus Christ has returned and is living in D.C.
According to the voter rolls of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, Christ registered to vote in D.C. on Nov. 19, 1992, as a member of the Kingdom of God Party. “I’m very heartened to know that he believes our future does not lie in the Republican or Democratic parties,” says Karen Szulgit, a critic of the election board’s failure to purge voter rolls of nonexistent and inactive voters.
Christ moved here after residing in Virginia, but LL can forgive him that sin, as we are sure all D.C. residents will.
Szulgit discovered Christ’s presence last weekend in her ongoing effort to uncover phony and out-of-date voter registrations that place a heavier burden on petitioners seeking signatures to get initiatives and referendums before the voters. Critics say the board’s inability to purge its rolls of voters who moved out of the city long ago also conveys the false impression that apathetic voters are staying away from the polls, when turnout is actually much higher than reported. These critics question how D.C. can continually lose population but see its voting population remain largely unchanged.
Former elections board general counsel Matt Watson says current voter registration in the District, totaling 353,503, could be inflated by as much as 10 percent.
“It means an initiative petitioner has to get 1,500 or so more signatures, and that’s a big imposition on your right to petition the electorate,” says Watson, who successfully sued the board last summer after it claimed supporters of the medical marijuana initiative had failed to collect enough signatures.
Szulgit, a petitioner for the Initiative 59 medical marijuana proposal, and her cohorts previously uncovered registered voters Hugh G. Rection and Packey M. Lamont. The discovery set off a stampede to the Eighth Street SE firehouse where Rection listed his residence, but no one by that name turned up. Szulgit also scoured the 1700 block of Lamont Street NW in search of Packey and discovered that the registered voter is the neighborhood pooch.
Neither has cast a ballot in D.C. since registering.
Unlike Packey and Hugh G., however, Jesus Christ actually exists, although not at the address listed on the D.C. voter rolls. The 47-year-old Christ, who legally changed his name nearly two decades ago, lives on North Carolina Street NE. He told LL he has been unable to cast a ballot in the last 11 elections because the Board of Elections incorrectly lists him as living on North Capitol Street.
All three incidents show how nonexistent and inactive voters can remain on the D.C. rolls indefinitely, even though they have not cast ballots for years.
Just a decade ago, the Board of Elections repeatedly won accolades as the one D.C. government agency that ran efficiently and competently. Under then-elections chief Emmett Fremaux, the board had recovered from its despicable performance during the early days of home rule, when boxes of punched ballots disappeared off the backs of trucks, cab drivers found cast ballots blowing around in the streets, and voting machines repeatedly jammed.
But under current chief Alice Miller, the board increasingly has come under fire for failing to purge its rolls of ineligible voters, fighting hard to keep politically sensitive initiatives off the ballot, and bowing to the status quo and congressional Republicans to help deny District residents their democratic rights.
Szulgit and a small group of protesters met with Miller Nov. 10 to encourage her to report the election results on Initiative 59, to decriminalize marijuana for medical use in the District. Although most local pols, including incoming Mayor Anthony Williams, backed the initiative, it drew stiff opposition from Congress and D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Congress forbade the District to spend a penny of its funds to certify the election results on the initiative. D.C. Corporation Counsel John Ferren estimates that tallying the vote, which requires simply punching a computer key, would cost the taxpayers $1.64.
“Many of us have been working so hard on this democracy issue,” says Szulgit, who offered Miller and her staff “Get Out of Jail Free” cards during last week’s protest. “We’re hoping that they will take the same risks that we do, and they are not.”
Board General Counsel Ken McGhie says the agency can’t engage in the kind of civil disobedience Szulgit and others advocate. Instead, the board has gone to court to lift the congressional ban. “That’s the only way we could do it,” McGhie insists. “We’re not just going to disregard an act of Congress.”
But criticism goes beyond the current legal battle to count the votes cast Nov. 3 on Initiative 59.
The board twice kept the initiative off the ballot, saying petitioners had failed to collect the 17,000-plus valid signatures needed to bring it before the voters. The board based its decision on the fact that one signature gatherer, Tanya Robinson, had listed her former address on the petition to conform to voter rolls that had not been updated.
Watson and Initiative 59 supporters won a court appeal setting aside the board’s decision. The D.C. Superior Court ruled that the board couldn’t keep the measure off the ballot simply because of a dispute over which precinct Robinson was legally registered in.
After the campaign of Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose received 2,000 returned mailings on 16,000 addresses of registered voters purchased from the elections board, the campaign staff tried to dump the returned mail on the board so it could update its rolls. But election officials refused the offer, claiming the Ambrose campaign had relied on a voter list that had since been updated.
Earlier this year, Ward 8 activist Sandra Seegars gave the board more than 1,000 names of voters in her ward registered at apartment buildings that were vacant or had been demolished. The board has been checking Seegars’ list.
D.C. election watchers say the board has been prevented by the lack of funds, the new national “motor voter” law, and court decisions from purging the District’s voting rolls of people who haven’t cast ballots in more than four years. A decision by the U.S. District Court for D.C. early this decade ruled that such actions unfairly disenfranchise poor and minority voters.
“We have never seen our rolls inflated to the extent they are talking about,” McGhie insists.
But Szulgit is convinced they are, and she’s now checking to see if Jesus’s disciples and the Virgin Mary have also returned and registered to vote in D.C.CP
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