Every morning, Matthew Donahue slaps the face of corporate America. During each a.m. rush hour, thousands of commuters crossing the Key Bridge into Washington stare at Donahue’s handiwork: a 6-by-10-foot “Remember the Valdez” banner that looms over the Georgetown Exxon station. The sign inspires an immediate question. Why would a wealthy homeowner block his spectacular view of the Potomac River in order to take a swipe at the Exxon tiger?
Well, if you ask Donahue, a real estate developer and the owner of the Prospect Street house where the banner hangs, he’ll first unleash a passionate sermon about free speech and Exxon’s crimes against the environment.
But press the issue, and Donahue readily admits that he’ll drop the banner—and his First Amendment rights—for a price.
“I’ve asked Exxon for money, and I won’t take [the banner] down until they give it to me,” Donahue says defiantly.
It’s not just Exxon that Donahue is jousting with. The 58-year-old businessman has cast himself as Georgetown’s David, battling corporate Goliaths over morality and politics. But unlike the biblical underdog, Donahue is trying to turn giant-killing into a profit-making venture.
On July 17, Donahue launched an assault even brasher than his “Valdez” sign, attempting to pry open the pocketbooks of the Walt Disney Co. That evening, Donahue and his three nephews—D.C.’s own McDuck family—managed to stall the filming of The Shadow Conspiracy for three hours. The thriller, which stars Donald Sutherland and Charlie Sheen, is being produced by Cinergi and distributed by Disney.
Donahue struck just before sunset. Film crews were setting up for a night shoot on the 1300 block of Wisconsin Avenue, and two of Donahue’s buildings were to be used as backdrops. Then Donahue and family unfurled two large anti-Disney banners from the building balconies. One sign read “DisneyFamily Values?,” the other “Boycott Disney.” To make sure he halted the shooting, Donahue also propped a blinking strobe light on a balcony.
Donahue is a devout Catholic—he’s a fourth-generation member of Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Church—and he claims that he was protesting Disney’s distribution of Priest, a recent film about sexually active Catholic priests. (Priest, some may recall, was one of the movies singled out by presidential candidate Sen. Robert Dole [R-Kan.] in his recent attack on Hollywood.) Both the Washington Post and local television news programs bought Donahue’s line, and covered him as a righteous, if zealous, man.
But Donahue was also serving another god: the Almighty Dollar.
Almost immediately after he draped the signs, Donahue sent down his demand. He told weary police officers and increasingly agitated filmmakers—a night of shooting costs tens of thousands of dollars—that he would take down the banners and extinguish the strobe for $35,000.
When quizzed about this ransom request, Donahue tries to take the moral high ground.
“I don’t care what anybody thinks,” he says defiantly. “This is a First Amendment issue. If somebody says I’m doing extortion, then I’ll say, “I’m sorry, this conversation has ended and you’ll have to leave.’
“In my opinion, we have the absolute right to do this, and my lawyer said the same thing,” Donahue continues. He says he hoped to split the $35,000 with his nephews and donate his share to a Catholic seminary. “I don’t want one red cent for myself.”
Finally, at around 11 p.m., the filmmakers persuaded the Metropolitan Police to remove the banners. (Georgetown is a historic district, and D.C. law prohibits building owners from hanging signs on historic buildings without a permit, which Donahue does not have.) A pair of cops mounted a cherry-picker, tussled briefly with Donahue and his nephews, then cut the signs off the balcony with a huge knife. The crowd gathered below cheered wildly at the scuffle.
The delay forced Cinergi to reschedule the shoot planned for Donahue’s side of Wisconsin till the following evening. (The night was not a total loss for the filmmakers: They shot street scenes on the other side of the avenue instead.)
On July 18, Donahue discovered that he had challenged a business that plays harder ball than he does. The morning after the battle, the company tried to negotiate with Donahue, hoping to prevent him from delaying the production again. After a few hours of futile discussions, during which Donahue accepted and then rejected a $5,000 settlement, the Hollywood folks stopped talking and started suing. Citing Donahue’s lack of a sign permit, they asked Superior Court Judge Reggie B. Walton for a temporary restraining order. Walton complied, forbidding Donahue from displaying his banners and illuminating his strobe during filming. Cinergi also gave Donahue an extra whack, filing a $1-million civil suit against him for disrupting their filming and trying to extort a payoff, says the production company’s lawyer. A hearing on the case is scheduled for Aug. 28.
It’s not surprising that Donahue is brawling with Disney, Exxon, Superior Court judges, and D.C. police officers. He’s a sclerotic man. During an interview at his cluttered Wisconsin Avenue office, his mood fluctuates wildly. At one minute, the portly, bespectacled Donahue seeks sympathy, explaining that he has a heart condition. At the next, he grows infuriated, waving his arms and getting red in the face as he denounces Exxon, Disney, and anyone else he believes interferes with his First Amendment rights.
Donahue articulates no coherent philosophy and makes no complicated legal arguments for why he’s lashing out at big business. Neither Exxon nor Disney nor any other corporate titan has ever really wronged him; he simply enjoys fighting. Real estate may pay Donahue’s bills—he owns four commercial properties on Wisconsin Avenue and four on O Street NW—but he seems to live for indignation and publicity. Donahue, in fact, seems almost as greedy for attention as for dollars.
Consider his battle with Exxon. Donahue has been waging it nonstop for five years, yet he hasn’t collected a penny. In 1989, the company’s image suffered an enormous blow when the tanker Exxon Valdez dumped millions of gallons of oil into Alaska’s pristine Prince William Sound. Donahue unveiled his sign almost immediately after the accident. Exxon officials have since met repeatedly with Donahue—at his convenience—to end the minor public-relations fiasco. Company officials have become exasperated with his antics, says spokesman Bruce Tackett in Dallas, Texas.
“We, like anyone else, do not like any circumstance where we feel we’re being taken advantage of,” Tackett says. “We’ve tried to be as responsive and respectful as we can be.”
But since the firm has not ponied up the cash Donahue says he wants, the banner continues to fly. (Neither Exxon nor Donahue will say how much money he’s asking for, but it’s clearly not pocket change.)
Meanwhile, Donahue is managing to alienate just about everyone in the District, especially local politicians and businesspeople. D.C.’s already got a rap as a city that’s lousy for commerce. Donahue, his critics say, is just making that reputation worse.
“It’s the height of self-indulgence,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who negotiated unsuccessfully with Donahue over the Disney banners. “We are a city that’s struggling. We need people coming here and filming movies, bringing tax money and revenue into our city.
“It struck me as a stickup,” Evans continues. “He knew he had the filmmakers in a bind as they waited to shoot their scenes. He’s clearly trying to shake down the company.”
“I’m sick of this guy,” says a top official with the Georgetown Business and Professional Association (GBPA) who asked not to be identified. “When your cause can be bought off by a big chunk of money, your moral stance loses all credibility.” (The GBPA and the Citizens Association of Georgetown, it should be noted, both received $10,000 donations from Cinergi for The Shadow Conspiracy. In addition, several Georgetown property owners were paid in advance between $100 and $2,000 for their cooperation.)
“Even if you’re going to be a shyster, you’d think he’d have the smarts to downplay the money part,” the GBPA official adds. “He made Georgetown look bad by holding up the movie.”
For his part, Donahue doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. “How the hell do you think I feel?” he asked after police officers seized his anti-Disney banners. “This is a violation of my constitutional rights.”
But don’t worry too much about Donahue. Glorious opportunities for mischief await him. After all, Oliver Stone’s Nixon begins filming in Washington this week.