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Last April, the taxpayer-subsidized Washington Convention Center Authority (WCCA) spent $1,500 to roll out 700 feet of blue carpet and hang 100 feet of blue drape for the inauguration of Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis as the new president of tiny Southeastern University (SU). But WCCA, in the midst of an intense battle to build a $650-million convention center at Mount Vernon Square, must have been embarrassed that it didn’t do more for Jarvis, one of its key supporters on the D.C. Council.
This June, WCCA plans to roll out the red carpet for 250 graduates of SU, which may soon have to change its name to Charlene Drew Jarvis University. The price tag? $28,000, or roughly $112 per alum. The school’s total enrollment is 806.
But Jarvis boasts that enrollment has soared since she took control of SU in July 1996, when, she claims, only 450 students attended classes at the little-known school in Southwest D.C., a block north of Arena Stage. LL figures the word must be getting around about Jarvis’ WCCA connection and the flashy grad ceremonies subsidized by D.C.’s overburdened taxpayers. Last year’s SU graduation also took place at the convention center, with WCCA picking up much of the tab. Prior to Jarvis’ arrival, SU’s graduation ceremonies were low-key affairs held in the dreary auditorium at the U.S. Department of the Interior.
For the past year, foes of the plan to cram the center into Mount Vernon Square have accused WCCA of co-opting its opponents with strategic disbursements of public funds. But according to WCCA documents recently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by opposition leader Beth Solomon, the authority has been kind to its supporters as well.
These FOIA documents show that, in addition to the largess provided Jarvis, WCCA:
•Hired former D.C. deputy mayor Alphonse Hill as a key financial adviser for the new convention center project. For an entity with WCCA’s public-image problems, Hill is an odd choice. In 1987, he pleaded guilty and served a prison term for steering $244,000 in city contracts to two friends and evading income taxes on $44,000 in kickbacks that he received. WCCA documents show that during a five-week period last July and August, Hill billed 30 hours at an undisclosed rate for helping WCCA prepare a response to D.C. Auditor Tony Cooper’s stinging report. Cooper highlighted a number of dubious WCCA expenditures, which included first-class travel for staffers and $16,000 in unpaid bills from Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.’s 1994 campaign. Hill is a consultant to Corby North Bridge Securities, which billed WCCA for more than $46,000 during a two-month period last summer.
WCCA officials, long regarded as pawns of Barry, claim they didn’t know they had employed Hizzoner’s former deputy. The authority’s claims, however, carry all the weight of a carefully worded denial by President Bill Clinton. Hill’s billings show he met with the agency’s staff and called them frequently. But his calls may no longer get put through. Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, one of three members of the council opposed to the Mount Vernon Square site, has called for an end to Hill’s involvement in the project.
•Paid to send flowers to the wife of Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, the biggest council booster of the Mount Vernon Square site. At present, only four councilmembers have declared support for the site.
•Hired a Takoma Park masseuse to provide massage therapy and reflexology therapy sessions as part of last August’s “Health and Safety Week” for WCCA employees. The massages were awarded at week’s end to reward the hardest-working staffers.
•Bought $1,600 worth of Bulova watches and gold charms to hand out as gifts to senior employees.
•Spent $1,047 on air fare to fly WCCA marketing official Langston Johnson to Copenhagen early last August, when nearly everyone in D.C. was trying to get out of the steamy city. Johnson’s reimbursement invoice claimed he went to Denmark to attend the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetricians. Convention center spokesperson Tony Robinson claims the trip was necessary to secure a future meeting of the federation in D.C., most likely in 2000.
•Paid $75,000 to the D.C. headhunting firm of Russell Reynolds Associates to recruit Lewis Dawley III as WCCA’s new general manager.
The independent authority lured Dawley away from his previous job as head of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority last July by offering him an annual salary of $175,000. That’s much more than any D.C. official currently gets paid, including the high salaries and bonuses being handed out by D.C. public schools chief Julius Becton.
The authority could lay the foundation for the center’s much-needed parking garage with the salary and bonuses it’s giving Dawley. The new general manager also got a $25,000 signing bonus. And in case Dawley couldn’t afford to take public transportation, the authority threw in a ’97 Ford Explorer, leased for 38 months at a total cost of $23,856, for Dawley’s personal use. Congress last year banned the practice of furnishing autos to D.C. employees. Since WCCA is an independent agency supported by tax dollars, it is not covered by the congressional bana loophole that Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback has vowed to close.
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Solomon dispersed her batch of FOIA documents to reporters last week on the same day WCCA finally released its long-awaited study by the consulting firm Coopers & Lybrand. The documents spoiled the debut of the WCCA study supporting construction of the new convention center at the Mount Vernon Square site instead of at an alternate site several blocks north of Union Station. According to Solomon’s documents, Hill had assisted Coopers & Lybrand in determining that the new center at Mount Vernon Square would create nearly 10,000 new D.C. jobs and boost the local economy by as much as $776 million.
Spokesperson Robinson called all of WCCA’s expenditures “entirely appropriate, given the way convention centers do business.” You can say that again.
POLITICS LAID BARE
Over the past year, the D.C. Council has struggled to regain powers lost to the financial control board. Whether the issue is confirming mayoral appointments, the city budget, or the proposed Children’s Island theme park, councilmembers crave the notion that they still matter. And they do, at least when it comes to the issue of naked, dancing women.
Last fall, the owner of the 1720 Club strip joint at 1720 H St. NW, just a few blocks from the White House, sought council help in keeping its club license. The nude dance spot must move to make way for planned redevelopment, and its owner, Benham Zanganeh, hired former council chair Sterling Tucker to grease the city’s legislative wheels. Because of a 4-year-old ban on new strip joints, Zanganeh could not keep his license at a new location without a waiver from the council.
Tucker quickly persuaded a most unlikely nude dancing aficionado, Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Sr., to sponsor a bill allowing the displaced club to transfer its existing license to just about anywhere in the city that zoning laws would permit. Thomas’ proposal shocked the owners of longtime M Street NW strip joints Joanna’s 1819 Club and the Camelot Nite Club, who want to keep central business district voyeurs to themselves. The M Street flesh-palace proprietors warned that Thomas’ bill would turn the 1800 block of M Street NW into a sleaze strip reminiscent of the old red-light section of 14th Street NW. Apparently the neighborhood can only handle two strip joints per block.
While downtowners debated sleaze levels, Hizzoner spotted an opportunity in the melee. As long as the council was considering the issue, Barry figured, it might as well carve out a tidy exemption for Chinatown restaurateur and longtime friend Tony Cheng. Like other tycoons in the old downtown, Cheng wants to feature naked woman at his I Street NW bar to capitalize on the drunken hordes spilling out of the MCI Center following Wizards and Caps games. Cheng, like Zanganeh, needs to find a way around the city’s 1994 moratorium on new strip joints, and the Thomas legislation might provide such a loophole.
Barry, of course, carefully avoided exposing himself as an agent of Cheng’s. Instead, longtime Barry ally Marlene Johnson, former head of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, who represents bar owners in her private law practice, was called in to do Cheng’s bidding publicly. But Johnson and Cheng soon abandoned their goal in the face of opposition from Evans, whose district includes Chinatown, and from Chinatown business owners.
Evans’ district also includes 1720 H St. NW, but the councilmember refused to co-sponsor Thomas’ bill in hopes the issue would disappear quickly. The councilmember, sponsor of the 1994 nude dancing moratorium, feared that a protracted tangle over relocation of the 1720 Club would spark a furor between ministers and Ward 2’s sizable gay community. Gay activists view nude dancing as an expression of sexual freedom.
Despite Evans’ maneuvering, the show goes on. Harold Brazil, chair of the council’s Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee, recently began pushing the legislation toward final council action. Brazil held a Nov. 18 hearing on Thomas’ bill, with Zanganeh as the only witness. Evans, a member of Brazil’s committee, claims he didn’t learn of the hearing until the next day.
The original record of that hearing has become a priceless, rare manuscript. According to a council source, the hearing included a frank discussion, complete with photos offered by the club owner, illustrating when a nude dancer is naked and when she is notfor purposes of the regulations, of course. After reviewing the printed record, Brazil decided it needed to be cleaned up and sent it back for censoring and reprinting.
Following the hearing, Evans decided to try to expedite passage before too many people got wind of what was going on. He offered an amendment that would allow the club owner to relocate only within one block of his current establishment, which probably means somewhere in the 1700 block of I Street NW. The owner claims he has a nearby location picked out but won’t reveal his plans until the council acts.
That doesn’t appear likely to be any time soon. Supporters were unable to get the legislation onto the council’s agenda for action this month, and next month also appears doubtful. Some have blamed the delay on the fact that women now hold the majority on the council, and women find nude dancing offensive. Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson and Ambrose have announced their opposition to the bill.
But at least one of the seven women on the councilcouncil chair Linda Croppappears to be pushing for passage. In a Jan. 27 letter to First Congregational United Church of Christ Minister John Mack, Cropp insisted that the bill, cleverly titled the “Business Base Regulatory Protection Act of 1997,” “is being misrepresented.”
According to Cropp, “Bill 12-451 seeks to protect any business which is forced to relocate due to public or private development.” Her letter never cites the club by name, nor does it mention nude dancing.
Since the bill would lapse six months after its passage, it is not expected to apply to any establishment other than the 1720 Club.
Downtown Cluster of Congregations official Terry Lynch has been busy whipping up the city’s ministers to pressure the council to kill the bill. All the political gyrations have strip fans wondering what the council fan dancers plan to do for an encore.
Nearly all the news articles profiling this month’s exit by 27-year California Rep. Ron Dellums failed to mention his 14-year stint as chairman of the old House D.C. Committee. And none of the 22 tributes to the former Oakland radical delivered on the House floor two weeks ago took note of this fact.
Dellums’ friends and colleagues seemed eager to avoid tainting his sudden retirement by bringing up the unpleasant business of Dellums’ D.C. Committee, which was disbanded by the Republican-led Congress three years ago. And Dellums, a steadfast defender of the District who even campaigned for Barry in the 1978 mayor’s race, seemed just as eager to avoid reminiscing about D.C.
He and his co-conspirators focused instead on his stewardship of the old House Armed Services Committee, which Dellums chaired for only two years.
As head of the D.C. Committee, Dellums fostered what D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has referred to as “the Dellums tradition”: respecting home rule and thwarting congressional attempts at micromanaging the District, even as the city was going down the tubes.
In a tribute to the departing congressman, Norton said, “Ron Dellums was no pushover. He believed in appropriate oversight.” Yes, none.CP
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