Just by looking at him, you would have been hard-pressed to tell in the last week that Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham was going through one of the lowest points of his political career.
After a D.C. Superior Court judge tossed out Graham’s Hail Mary attempt on Friday to dismiss a finding by the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability that the councilmember had violated the city’s code of conduct, Graham was all smiles while his lawyer talked to the press for him outside the courtroom. After his attorney did an interview on camera for a TV reporter, Graham complimented her shoes.
On Monday, the D.C. Council passed a resolution reprimanding him for adversely affecting “the confidence of the public in the integrity of the District government” by trying to leverage his vote on the city’s lottery contract to help a campaign donor get a piece of a Metro development deal. Graham looked mostly upbeat as he sat through scoldings from some of his colleagues. Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells said he didn’t think Graham’s punishment went far enough, and At-Large Councilmember David Grosso read emails from constituents praising him for taking a hard line against Graham. Given an opportunity to respond, Graham instead allowed a disjointed harangue by Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry to be the sole defense given from the dais against a reprimand.
After the hearing, Graham told reporters he was relieved and eager to put the episode behind him: “It’s over. Let’s get on with the business of the city and the business of Ward 1. Thank you very much.”
But this serenity appears to have been born of necessity, as Graham knew he was licked. Before the calm smiles, and for the past several months, Graham has loudly played the victim while fighting aggressively against what he and his legal team said were unfair and unconstitutional investigations against him.
The backstory: In 2008, Graham had a meeting with Warren Williams Jr., a former nightclub owner who had feuded with Graham in the past and was in line to win a piece of the city’s lottery contract as well as a contract to develop Metro-owned property on Florida Avenue NW. Graham, who was then a member of Metro’s board of directors, indicated that he would vote to support Williams winning the lottery contract if Williams involved developer LaKritz Adler in the Metro project, according to several people at the meeting.
Like many developers, LaKritz Adler had donated money to Graham’s past political campaigns. A steady trickle of emails related to the meeting found their way to various media outlets. The Washington Post editorial board refused to let the issue die, ultimately prompting Metro to commission an independent investigation. That probe found last year that Graham had violated Metro’s code of conduct by making the offer to Williams. Piggybacking off the Metro investigation, the newly formed ethics board found last month that there was “substantial” evidence that Graham had violated the city’s code of conduct. But the ethics board said it didn’t have the legal authority to punish Graham because the wrongdoing occurred before the board existed, so it didn’t pursue a full-blown investigation of its own.
Enter the Council, which does have the authority to punish Graham—something that neither voters, nor his colleagues, nor federal law enforcement authorities have been willing or able to do up to now. The federal government spent a great deal of time and money trying to find something on Graham during its years-long investigation of bribery and illegal gifts associated with the city’s taxicab industry. Starting in 2008, the feds tried to ply Graham with offers of cash, a luxury trip to Miami, and even a painted portrait of the councilmember.
That didn’t succeed, and instead prosecutors settled for sending Graham’s chief of staff, Ted Loza, to prison for eight months for improperly taking gratuities. But while Graham was never charged, his behavior still might have run afoul of city law. When Loza gave Graham an envelope full of $2,600 from a taxi lobbyist working undercover for the FBI, Graham refused to take it but didn’t report what happened to anyone.
“He says thank you for the intention, but he can’t take it,” Loza told the lobbyist in a conversation recorded by the FBI. “It’s illegal … it truly is.”
The Council’s ethics rules say that “a councilmember shall report immediately to the Office of the Inspector General, or other appropriate authorities any information concerning conduct which he or she knows, or should know, involves corrupt or other criminal activity.” It’s hard to imagine Graham, who has two law degrees and clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren (albeit after he’d left the Supreme Court), wouldn’t have known the envelope might have involved corrupt activity.
But the Council has steered far away from anything related to the federal investigation of Graham, even so. “I don’t know the facts,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said Monday of Loza’s attempted gift to Graham (the details of which have been widely reported and are available in court records).
Graham also may have violated the same duty to report wrongdoing related to the lottery contract. In a deposition, Graham said his friend, former Ward 1 school board member Dottie Love Wade, came to his office in 2008 and suggested an “accommodation” could be made whereby Love would get a job if Graham voted for a particular lottery contractor. Graham said he found Wade’s suggestion “very repulsive,” but again did not report Wade’s alleged misbehavior. (Wade has denied any wrongdoing.) In fact, Graham made Wade his campaign chairwoman when he ran for re-election in 2010. When these depositions became public last year, the Council again opted against examining whether Graham had broken city rules.
So it’s a little rich that the Council finally decided it had to take a stand on Graham over, of all things, city contracting.
“While it may be appropriate for a councilmember to publicly express a preference,” Mendelson said from the dais on Monday, “it is not appropriate for a councilmember to attempt to influence, behind the scenes, who may win a bid.”
Sounds good—except councilmembers try to influence city contracting all the time in the District. The lottery contract is a perfect example: a protracted, mostly behind-the-scenes, politically motivated battle between then-Mayor Adrian Fenty and then-Chairman Vince Gray, with each backing his own preferred vendor. (Gray ultimately won, with Williams—Fenty’s pick—left out of the final lottery deal.)
Mendelson knows that, too: When the Council cast its final vote on the contract in 2009, he was the lone vote against the deal. “I can’t help but think that the fix was on,” Mendelson, then an at-large councilmember, told reporters after the vote. No other councilmember may cross the line Graham crossed on the lottery contract, but years of lax D.C. ethics practices have blurred the line so much it’s not exactly clear what it looks like anyway.
This was the not-so-subtle point that Graham and his supporters harped on up until Monday’s vote. “If it happens to me today, if it happens to Jim Graham tomorrow, it can happen to anyone next week,” Barry said.
In any event, the big question moving forward is whether Graham’s relatively minor punishment—in addition to the reprimand, which is really just a formality, he was also stripped of oversight of the city’s alcoholic beverage regulation board—will have any effect on his political career, which the Loza matter didn’t seem to hurt at all. Graham hasn’t said whether he’s planning on running for re-election next year. At least three people—Brianne Nadeau, Terry Lynch, and Bryan Weaver—have indicated they are running against Graham for the Democratic nomination or seriously considering it.
If history’s a guide, Monday’s reprimand may speed up Graham’s decision. When Loza was arrested in 2009, not long before the 2010 election, political consultant Chuck Thies says Graham asked him for advice on what to do next. Thies says he advised waiting a few weeks, then hosting a campaign kickoff event to show that Graham still had plenty of support. Which is exactly what Graham did; Thies says the campaign kickoff was packed with Graham backers.
“Jim knows the road map,” Thies says. “He’s been down this road before.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery