Zero Worship: Tommy Wells? no vote on arena upgrade freezes him out of the ball game. Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

On April 3, the D.C. Council presented Verizon Center owner Abe Pollin a generous gift. In a 9n2 vote, the panel authorized a new city tax on tickets to events at the arena. Revenue from the fee will pay for a $50 million financing scheme for major renovations of the center, including an upgrade in luxury suites and a fancy new scoreboard.

The day after the vote, a square package arrived at the council offices of all nine members whose name appeared in the yes column of the ticket-tax bill. It was a present courtesy of Washington Sports and Entertainment—a small token of appreciation for the freebie makeover.

The dean of Washington-area sports millionaires gave each of his nine council pals a basketball. The ball was a special autographed edition sealed in a crystal clear Plexiglas case made by the sports equipment maker Báden. The memento sits on top of a 1-inch faux cherry stand.

Inside the display case is a certificate of sorts. “You have just received an authentic signature from The Washington Sports and Entertainment Collection,” the card reads. The certificate guarantees the authenticity of the autograph—a stylized “G” and “A” scribble by Wizards All-Star Gilbert Arenas.

The Arenas ball is a pretty cool item to have around the office, a nice supplement to the luxury suite that the District government also got as part of the deal.

At least Pollin offered more than the customary pat on the back, handshake, and promise of campaign cash down the road. “I am very grateful for your support yesterday on the Verizon Center bill,” Pollin wrote in the letter to each of his nine supporters. “As a result of your good business judgment, we will be able to continue our successful public private partnership for many years to come,” he wrote, noting his staff “indicated how all you helped to improve this piece of legislation and make it a win-win for us and the city we all love.”

The two dissenting votes on the council, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells and Ward 3’s Mary Cheh, will have to walk a few blocks over to City Sports at Gallery Place if they want an autograph-free ball for their offices.

At least Wells and Cheh don’t have to figure out how to report the value of Pollin’s present in the annual gift report to the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance. The office’s regulations require that any gift valued over $100 be disclosed.

The basketball itself is no great mystery. According to the Báden Web site, the ball and display case go for about $40 each.

The autograph, on the other hand, is a bit harder to peg. On the day the gift-wrapped ball arrived, the Wizards appeared to be cruising into the National Basketball Association playoffs behind Arenas, then the league’s third-leading scorer. But by the time councilmembers had read their thank-you note from Pollin, the value of the all-star’s autograph might have plummeted. Arenas went down for the season with a knee injury on April 4, dashing the hopes that the Wizards might make a run during the playoffs.

The terms “Washington Wizards” and “autograph” don’t particularly excite sports collectors. Keith Vari, director of acquisitions at Leland’s, a New York sport-memorabilia firm, says of the Pollin gift, “It’s not that big a deal. The autograph, the ball, the display case—probably about 200 bucks, tops.”

Now a few councilmembers who don’t really need any more crap in their offices are trying to figure out how to get rid of Pollin’s gift. At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown hadn’t even opened the box from Pollin until this week. The display case won’t gather any dust in his office. He plans to present the ball to a female D.C. basketball player who played for the city championship.

At least one of the members frozen out by Pollin hasn’t given up on the idea of having some serious Wizards sports memorabilia to show off. “I love the Wizards, especially Gilbert Arenas,” says Wells. “So, I’m hoping one of the members who is not a basketball fan will sell me one.” He has a pretty good idea who that might be. “I’d like to buy Phil’s from him.”

In At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson’s office, the autographed ball and display case sit on top of a metal file cabinet out of view to all but the curious. But Wells won’t have long to size up the merchandise. Mendelson plans to give the ball to the Eaton Elementary School for one of its fundraising auctions.

In typical Mendelson nitpicking fashion, he’s having a hard time accepting that Arenas actually signed the ball, despite the certificate of authenticity. “How do you know that is really his signature?” he asks. “I don’t want to donate something that isn’t legitimate.”

LAST CHANCE TO SUCK UP

Why in the world would Ward 4 council candidate Muriel Bowser need any more money for her special election bid?

When she last reported her fundraising figures to the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, Bowser had raised nearly $250,000, more than was raised in three of the four 2006 ward races. Her March 10 report showed Bowser had a little more than $193,000 of cash on hand.

That kind of dough will buy a lot of colorful mailers and poll workers for a ward race.

She pays her top staff moderately.

Her spending on entertainment and office space doesn’t take a big bite.

So what gives?

As Bowser’s patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, was so fond of repeating during his own 2006 run: “We’re not taking anything for granted.”

Well, there is one thing that is a given: A few big-time politicos are still eager for one more chance to show how much they love the mayor’s pick to succeed him in the ward.

An April 11 fundraiser at Georgia Brown’s won’t just feature fried catfish and Carolina gumbo. Bowser’s host committee reads like a who’s-who of D.C. political influence peddlers and hangers-on.

Let’s start with the folks trying to ease their way back into Fenty’s good graces. Developer H.R. Crawford was a big supporter of Fenty’s main primary opponent, Linda Cropp. But Crawford wants to keep his seat on the Washington Regional Airports Authority board, so now he’s a Bowser man and a member of the host committee.

Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington counsel Andrew Kline and the group’s chief lobbyist, Lynne Breaux, are co-chairs, along with Georgia Brown’s owner Paul Cohn. The bar and eatery crowd were a virtual cash spigot for Cropp’s clunky machine in 2006. It’s time to get on the winning side.

Lobbyist turned construction-company owner and Cropp loyalist Kerry Pearson is also on board as a co-chair. He’s given up the influence-peddling game but now has an eye on city contracts.

All of this star fundraising power should crank out unheard-of amounts of cash that Bowser can spend from Brightwood to Crestwood. Bowser’s campaign isn’t talking about how exactly she plans to spend it: “Everything from mail to phone calls to get out the vote,” says Bowser staffer John Falcicchio. GOTV guru Tom Lindenfeld of LSG Strategies should be shaking some hands at the fundraiser. His company took in nearly $250,000 from the Fenty campaign and has been informally advising Bowser since day one.

But Lindenfeld isn’t expecting a big windfall for his work. “It would be hard to make any real money on a ward race,” he says.

Political Potpourri

• No big-time bureaucrat likes an unauthorized leak to the press, and D.C. schools Superintendent Clifford Janey is no exception.

On April 3, the Washington Examiner reported on findings that numerous water sources in schools across the city contained elevated levels of lead. Those findings were contained in a report that Janey & Co. had shared with the D.C. Board of Education. Apparently, Janey had hoped the report would stay close to home.

So Janey sent out a short e-mail intended “to clear up some of the issues surrounding the article.” The April 3 e-mail, sent to all school board members and a few staff, delivered a mild scolding to whomever handed the health information over to the newspaper.

Janey notes that the information was submitted to the school board’s Operations Committee as “a part of our efforts to keep standing committees informed of specific issues under their jurisdiction. The reporter from the Examiner obtained a copy of it and generated the article that appears in today’s Examiner.”

Not that Janey wanted to point a finger at anyone by talking about “keeping the standing committees informed.” The Operations Committee is made up of only three members, Jeff Smith, Lisa Raymond, and Laura Slover. Smith resigned from the board last week.

Janey’s office did not return calls seeking comment.

• It’s hard enough for D.C. politicians to raise money in the District when they have to counter the Fenty machine. But now local pols are getting competition from outside of the city.

Fenty’s colleague to the north, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, will be in town next week for a fundraising gala at the Ellington apartments on U Street NW. The whole affair has been arranged by a veteran of D.C. politics, Joe Louis Ruffin. Dixon, who was previously chairman of the Baltimore City Council, ascended to the mayor’s office when Martin O’Malley was sworn in as Maryland’s governor.

Don’t expect this to be a lowbrow affair. An e-mail invite sent to LL suggests that to be a host of the event, you’ll need to cough up $5,000. You can attain sponsor status for just $2,500.

That shouldn’t be a big problem for the event organizers. Mayor Dixon will be collecting cash from the same folks who have fed D.C.’s political coffers: consistent givers Donatelli Development, Gotham Development and Gragg & Associates, and PGN Architects are hosting the event.

Ruffin has worked in the Baltimore development business for years and calls cozying up to Mayor Dixon “a natural for aggressive, young D.C. entrepreneurs. The development here in Washington has reached its peak,” he says.

• Former Mayor Anthony A.Williams has a date for his return to the D.C. political scene. The occasion is likely to gin up a bit of nostalgia for the two-term D.C. chief exec. For his terrible political instincts, that is.

Williams is scheduled to host the April 23 annual Gala for the University of the District of Columbia Foundation. The black-tie affair will raise funds for the university endowment.

Williams has often cited his 1999 proposal to sell off the Northwest D.C. campus and move the university to Southeast as one of the great mistakes of his administration. Williams learned a lesson about consulting with the community before messing with a city icon.

Williams did not return calls seeking comment, but private citizen Tony is apparently ready to make amends. According to UDC officials, Mayor Williams did not make an appearance at the last two foundation galas.

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