Rep. John D. Dingell’s bona fides as an investigative bulldog go way back. During congressional Democrats’ Tip O’Neill-led heyday, Dingell was responsible for getting 20 EPA officials canned in the early ’80s for not enforcing environmental laws. Later that decade, Mr. Subpoena helped send a bunch of FDA employees to jail after showing they’d taken bribes from pharmaceutical companies to speed drug approvals. Dingell was also the guy who uncovered the Pentagon’s infamous $600 toilet seats.
Now that the Dems are back in charge, and Dingell’s back atop the House Energy and Commerce committee, he’s pushed investigations into climate change, no-bid Iraq contracts, and Dick Cheney’s secretive Energy Task Force.
And the Washington Canoe Club.
The Washington Canoe Club is a 200-member outfit devoted to competitive paddle sports. Founded in 1904, the club has built and maintained a green shingle-style boathouse on the banks of the Potomac just upstream from the Key Bridge. The club originally leased the property from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, but the feds took over the land in 1971 and since then, the club has paid a small amount of rent each year—currently $5,000—to keep its digs.
That won’t last much longer if Dingell, the longest-serving active member of Congress, has anything to do with it. On July 16, Dingell, along with fellow Michigander Rep. Bart Stupak, chair of Energy and Commerce’s investigative subcommittee, dispatched a letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne inquiring why National Park Service land is leased to “an exclusive private club limited to a few hundred individuals who were lucky or wealthy enough to pass a rather restrictive screening process.” The letter demanded numerous records regarding the Canoe Club’s relationship and history with the federal government.
The letter, whose existence was first reported by an ABC News blog last month, was based on a report written by the Interior Department’s inspector general, detailing five private facilities sitting on federal land in the Northeast. The other four sites studied—spots with names like the Breezy Point Surf Club and the Rockaway Point Yacht Club—all have yearly membership fees well above the Canoe Club’s $400. The committee has not sent letters to any of the other clubs.
That that Canoe Club has been singled out is largely a function of its location on the Potomac waterfront, committee spokesperson Jodi Seth says. The letter, she writes in an e-mail, focused on the WCC “because of the club’s unique location near the seat of our federal government and its obvious connection to a highly-controversial development project on the Potomac waterfront.”
That highly controversial development project would be the massive boathouse that Georgetown University has been trying to build just upstream from the Canoe Club’s facility. Currently stuck in limbo while the Park Service reviews the plans, the boathouse has come under fire from a number of groups, not least of them the Canoe Club, which fears the 35,000-square-foot boathouse would threaten its own structure. The July letter from Dingell and Stupak refers to “a number of educational institutions…[that] have for decades unsuccessfully sought permits from the Park Service to build training facilities.”
The rub: Dingell holds undergraduate and law degrees from Georgetown. And the fact that the committee’s chief counsel for oversight, John F. Sopko, is an avid rower, and hence competes with paddlers for river space, also stokes Canoe Club suspicions. (Full disclosure: LL is a Georgetown alumnus. He is not a rower.)
On Sept. 4, WCC President Andrew Soles and board member Jim Ross met with Sopko and committee staffer Steven Rangel (son of Democratic bigwig Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York) in a congressional office building. Sopko, Soles and Ross say, peppered the Canoe Club reps with questions about the club’s admission policies and membership. “They were highly interested in the demographic makeup of our club, both from the racial and the wealth aspect,” Soles says.
WCC honchos protest that their club isn’t exactly the domain of the moneyed elite. Membership is limited to 200, based largely on the limited boat storage space available at the boathouse. Just about anyone willing to volunteer at the club and stick out an average three-year wait, Soles says, will eventually get in. The current wait list is about 30 names long. “It’s not based on luck or wealth,” he says.
The club has black members, Soles says, but responding to Sopko’s inquiries has been difficult since the club keeps no records on its members’ races. Nonmembers have several opportunities a year to use the club’s facilities, too, Soles says, and he notes that the club has brought in inner-city church groups for paddling outings.
As for Dingell’s GU ties, Seth says, “This has nothing at all to do with the fact that Dingell is a Georgetown alum—he graduated from Georgetown 50 years ago.” Georgetown spokesperson Julie Green Bataille says the university has not had any contact with Dingell on the boathouse issue.
An Energy and Commerce staffer, who did not want to be named because of committee policy, says Dingell himself “did not approach us with this issue,” but that it grew out of the inspector general’s report. The staffer said no decision has been made on what recommendation the committee will make to the Interior Department.
But at the Sept. 4 meeting, Soles says, he asked Sopko what he planned to recommend to the Park Service: “He said they will probably recommend to the National Park Service that they not renew our permit,” which expires on Dec. 31.
Come New Year’s, Soles says, “We’re really concerned someone else will have a lock on our gate.”
• Former Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen has returned to electoral politics.
Allen, vanquished in 2004 by Marion S. Barry Jr.’s comeback, won the presidency of the Ward 8 Democrats at the group’s convention Saturday. “It feels very good,” she says. Allen had been interim head of the organization since longtime prez Philip Pannell stepped down in July, but her victory Saturday over Chanda McMahan represented Allen’s first election win since her 2000 triumph in the uncontested general election for Ward 8 councilmember.
Allen, who also serves on the city’s taxicab commission, says she’s not eyeing any other posts. “I have no aspirations, other than to see the ward have a viable Democratic organization,” she told LL in her trademark rasp.
• Tuesday was Car-Free Day in the District of Columbia, which provided city politicos a chance to prove their ecocredentials during the morning’s commute.
Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, who masterminded the holiday, rode his bike to work, as did City Administrator Dan Tangherlini. Council Chairman Vincent Gray and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans took Metro. But several other councilmembers chose less purist modes of transport.
At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, for instance, says she was picked up and driven by a staffer to a morning appointment. She cited a rather bulky briefcase for the chauffeur treatment. She did, after the appointment, walk the remainder of the trip to the John A. Wilson Building. Her trademark Jaguar remained parked at home, she says.
The biggest splash came from At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown, who arrived with Wells atop a police-issue Segway he rode all the way from his Hillcrest home. LL suggested to Wells that the Segway was cheating, seeing as it has a motor that has to be charged off the electric grid. Gotta watch that carbon footprint, Kwame!
Wells defended Brown’s choice of wheels, calling them “in the spirit of the day.” Brown said his conveyance was inspired by a sense of empathy: “I wanted to see what it was like for the disabled.”
Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander chose not to eschew internal combustion for her commute: She showed up on a sharp purple Vespa Granturismo scooter. In her defense, she did manage to scooterpool: Friend and Hillcrest resident Darryl D. Rose piloted the petite vessel to the Wilson Building while Alexander held on behind.
“I drive a Land Rover,” she says. “I had to wean myself off.”
And it seems that Car-Free Day turned into Car-Free Morning for the D.C. Council. At the Council’s pre-session breakfast meeting, discussions turned to transportation down to the Capitol for Tuesday’s Senate vote on District congressional representation. Gray offered use of his official car and a van to ferry councilmembers the 13-and-a-half blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue NW for the vote.
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