Civil investigators are examining whether the D.C. Council’s longest-serving member in its history violated the Council’s code of conduct “by lobbying on behalf of a client for a law firm at which he was employed,” a top ethics official told the District’s ethics board last week. The official’s remarks effectively confirmed the existence of an ongoing review of Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans‘ outside business activity.
They also suggested that the probe, which launched in January and was hinted at in an April report by the ethics board, is ramping up. On June 7, at a regular meeting of the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA), Director of Government Ethics Brent Wolfingbarger told the board’s members that his staff had requested documents pertaining to the investigation from the Council. Wolfingbarger said investigators were working with the legislature’s general counsel “to resolve any issues” with this request, according to audio of the meeting that the board recently released.
He also noted that BEGA had “received additional complaints that Councilmember Evans made false statements on his most recent financial disclosure statement in connection with his outside activities and that he violated rules regarding outside employment.” The review would be “resource-intensive,” said Wolfingbarger, who described the matter as “high-profile” and “complex.”
When board member Darrin Sobin asked Wolfingbarger if there had been “any problems with cooperation,” Wolfingbarger said investigators had “had a pretty productive meeting” with Council staff in May. He added that Evans had participated in that meeting and was aware of the request for documents.
Until last week, BEGA had not publicly discussed the investigation and tied it to Evans, although news outlets had reported its existence within the past two months, citing anonymous government sources. In a list of complaints that BEGA published in April, the board indicated that it had launched a “formal investigation into allegations that an elected official took action or participated in a decision that affected their (or an affiliated person’s) financial interest”—without specifying the official in question.
Neither Wolfingbarger, Evans, nor a spokesperson for Evans could immediately be reached for comment, but City Paper will update this post should they respond.
The probe reportedly centers on whether Evans acted improperly when digital sign company Digi Media sought to retain him for legal services in 2016, around the time it ran into regulatory trouble with the District. That year, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine sued Digi and property companies for erecting signs without the right permits. Regulators and critics argued that the signs posed a danger to public safety and harmed the District’s built character.
In 2016, the company also offered Evans’ son a summer internship, which Evans has said his son did not take, and Evans drafted emergency legislation that would have legalized Digi’s signs, but ultimately withdrew it. The company is contesting the District’s lawsuit, which is pending in D.C. Superior Court.
Evans chairs both the Council’s committee on finance and revenue and Metro’s board. In the past two years, he has held paid private positions as an of-counsel attorney at law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, which he left in November, and as principal of a consultancy he founded called NSE Consulting, which shares the initials of his late wife Noel Soderberg Evans.
The councilmember reported making at least $50,000 for each role in 2016, according to a financial disclosure form he submitted to BEGA the following year. But Evans has not disclosed who his clients have been. Manatt frequently lobbies councilmembers on various laws and tax breaks, and the registered agent for NSE Consulting is N. William Jarvis, a developer and lobbyist.
In May, Evans told The Washington Post that in 2016 he returned two checks collectively worth $50,000 to Digi Media, which sought to pay NSE just weeks after NSE had registered as a business with the District. He said he had planned to assist the sign company with non-D.C. business dealings and would have recused himself from Council action affecting the company.
“There was nothing improper about it,” Evans told the Post. “From my perspective, I like to be very clean, for lack of a better way of discussing it, because the perception always becomes more important than reality. So I just didn’t even want to have a perception of a conflict of interest.”
D.C. councilmembers are legally allowed to have outside jobs, provided that they meet certain disclosure requirements and recuse themselves from any clear conflicts of interest. But the number of councilmembers who have additional jobs has declined in recent years, leaving only Evans and Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, a law professor at George Washington University, in that category currently.
It is unclear how quickly the investigation will develop given BEGA’s limited resources and other ethics reviews it is pursuing that also involve prominent government officials. At the board meeting, which took place on June 7, Wolfingbarger provided brief updates on investigations into conduct by Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity Courtney Snowden, who used her staff for babysitting in 2015, and former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson and former Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles, who arranged for Wilson’s daughter to switch schools without going through the school lottery.
BEGA investigators recently interviewed Wilson, Niles, and “several DCPS employees,” Wolfingbarger told board members. (After resigning in February, Wilson alleged that Mayor Muriel Bowser knew of his daughter’s transfer between schools, but Bowser has denied this and the D.C. Council opted not to hold a hearing on the matter.)
“The team focuses on primarily their more important cases, and as a result, some of the cases that I wouldn’t say are less important, but less challenging or complex, are kind of put to the side until we can make sufficient progress in these high-profile cases that are of great interest to the public,” Wolfingbarger said.