Good Sport: Morris parlays a smooth transition into a coveted appointment. Credit: (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

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For D.C. influence grabbers, an appointment to the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission is the plum slot among the mayor’s political patronage posts.

It’s one of the few positions stocked full of VIP perks that can be snagged without having to be elected. Each commission member gets a free pass to events at RFK Stadium and a great seat in the commission box.
The mayor usually reserves the coveted posts for his biggest backers.
Unless you’re Mayor Adrian Fenty. He appoints a guy who served as the mouthpiece for his highest-profile critic during the 2006 campaign—former Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ spokesperson, Vincent Morris.

Morris choreographed his boss’ weekly press conferences, which last summer sometimes turned into Fenty-bashing sessions—especially after Williams’ endorsement of Fenty’s biggest challenger in the 2006 democratic primary, Linda Cropp.

Morris does have one solid sporting connection. He’s drawn lots of praise from stadium backers for his salesmanship during the baseball stadium debate. He even commandeered the dc.gov Web site to plead the mayor’s case for a baseball stadium. Who can blame him? It was his boss’ legacy project.

But the stadium fight was also Fenty’s signature “just say no” cause. It was the populist rallying cry that first fueled his mayoral ambitions. “I hope everyone who voted for this gets a thank-you note from baseball,” Fenty said at the conclusion of a council vote on the stadium. “We are voting on a very unfair deal that every member of this council would say is a bad deal.”

According to well-placed sources, Williams practically begged Fenty to name Morris to the commission. “I love Vince,” the former mayor told WTWP radio during his final Ask the Mayor appearance. Morris, too, did his own version of lobbying. In Fenty’s words, the Williams acolyte was “extremely helpful” during the mayoral transition.
The Fenty nod is Morris’ second run at the commission slot. He was one of 43 eleventh-hour nominations to boards and commissions that Williams put forward during his final days in office. Williams dropped the nominations as a courtesy to Fenty.

The grumbling about Morris among the Fenty faithful has begun, albeit in an off-the-record kind of way. They recall that Morris assisted Williams and Cropp in attacking their guy during the campaign. After Fenty cast the lone vote against an emergency crime bill last July, Williams issued this statement: “I hope that Councilmember Adrian Fenty, who was the only one to vote against this package, is able to explain how he thinks voting against all of these initiatives will make the District a better place.”

When asked whether Morris was the most qualified person to serve on the panel, Fenty replied that he was brought on because of his “government experience.” Which consists of 22 months as the previous mayor’s flack.

Morris doesn’t even try to pretend he was a secret Fenty worshipper during his days with Williams. “I’m grateful that Mayor Fenty had the confidence in me,” he says, “despite my lack of political connections.”

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PHIL’S LONG MEMORY

One Fenty nominee who served under Williams should expect to have some dirty laundry aired if he makes it to a confirmation hearing. That nominee is Geoffrey Griffis, who has been chair of the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) since 2001.

Fenty wants Griffis to serve on another zoning panel—the city Zoning Commission.

But At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson has other notions. Mendelson’s concerns stem from Griffis’ work as BZA chair. In 2004, the National Child Research Center (NCRC) had put in for a zoning change so it could expand its facility in Northwest. As the matter was being debated, opponents of the project learned that Griffis had a personal relationship with a former member of the center’s board. He voted in favor of the zoning adjustment, and the NIMBYs hired a private detective to nail him.

As part of the zoning battle, the NCRC opponents filed photos taken by a private investigator of Griffis and the board member entering his house one evening and emerging the next morning.

As the controversy simmered, Griffis wrote an e-mail to Mendelson: “[M]y personal relationships in no way influenced my thinking or votes.”

Now that Griffis’ name has come up again, Mendelson is pretty clear where he stands on the steamy scandal. In a Jan. 19 letter to Fenty, Mendelson says Griffis “has demonstrated very poor judgment when it comes to ethics and appearance of impropriety.” He raises concerns that Griffis “failed—and ultimately refused—to disclose the relationship” with the NCRC board member before voting on the zoning proposal.

Griffis, a Fenty volunteer who also donated the maximum $2,000 to the campaign, calls Mendelson’s concerns old news that will play no role in his Feb. 22 confirmation hearing. “The critical thing to look at is the performance of the board,” he says. “We don’t play favorites. The test is how often we are appealed.…[Our decisions] are consistently upheld by the Court of Appeals.”

Griffis says he has plenty of support on the council dais. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh says Griffis is “extraordinarily well informed. I have no reason to doubt his judgement.” Cheh adds that Mendelson’s objections came as “quite a surprise.” But if Griffis’ nomination goes forward, Mendelson will be waiting. “I think it will be a messy confirmation hearing,” he says.

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

• On Jan. 17 Metro held a groundbreaking for the expansion of the Navy Yard Metro and some nearby development, a critical part of the new baseball stadium area. On hand was Fenty, as well as three other former baseball bashers: At-Large Councilmembers Mendelson and Carol Schwartz and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. In all, nine of the 11 councilmembers were onstage with Nationals officials and the Lerner family to bask in the glory of a development some of them had called a huge rip-off.

With such a high turnout of suddenly supportive pols on hand, the image team at Metro was really thinking when it set up for the ceremonial first turn of the shovel. A dirt-filled, 20-foot long wooden box was brought in so the crowd of dignitaries could conveniently make it into the money shot.

Metro planners would have been wise to consult with someone who had some experience raising farm animals before pushing forward with the fancy new groundbreaking prop. When the politicians and fat cats stepped forward to turn the dirt, it looked as if they were slinging slop. One onlooker, who preferred to remain nameless, couldn’t get the barnyard image out his head: “It looks exactly like a feeding trough for hogs.”

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