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It’s not every day that something as inside baseball as committee assignments leads the news cycle. But such was the case last week, when the reality show known as the D.C. Council voted Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells off the island, stripping him of his leadership of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation.
Few actual voters may care what committee Wells—or any councilmember—sits on, but everyone loves a good revenge story.
And that’s exactly how Wells spun his demotion: Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown was punishing Wells because he’s had the audacity to investigate why Brown put the city on the hook for two luxury Lincoln Navigators.
Despite (or because of) Brown’s meek and unbelievable protestations that the Navigator investigation had nothing to do with the reshuffling, the media went nuts. TV outlets got to dust off b-roll footage of Brown’s old Navigator, columnists and editorial pages got to rake Brown over the coals, and Wells was turned into a good government martyr almost overnight.
There’s certainly some truth to Wells’ narrative. Brown’s assertions that he’s not punishing Wells over Navigatorgate are about as believable as his lame assertions that he had nothing to do with specifically requesting Navigators in the first place.
But it’s not the whole story, and Brown did not act alone. Every councilmember voted to give Wells the boot, save for Wells, in one of the more awkward council votes in recent memory.
“Further discussion? Further discussion?” Brown asked after Wells had spoken up to defend himself. There was none.
“I thought the most uncomfortable and kind of sad thing about it was that nobody else spoke up,” says Sharon Ambrose, who was Ward 6’s councilmember prior to Wells. “That was pretty tough.”
Sure, the vote probably indicates the other councilmembers–as all politicians would do—were trying to keep Brown’s ire focused on Wells, and not on themselves. But it also says a lot about Wells’ standing among some of his peers. Ask around the dais in the council chamber, and you’ll hear that Wells had it coming. “No, he earned it,” corrects one of Wells’ fellow members, who spoke on background to avoid publicly shit-talking a colleague. (Even the D.C. Council hasn’t reached a Jersey Shore level of internal strife yet.)
Wells, who straddled the line between former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s council supporters and opponents during the last legislative session, hasn’t built any strong alliances with any other councilmembers in this current session. Couple that with some colleagues who say they’ve been betrayed by Wells on a vote or two in the past (and just might be tired of the positive attention he gets from the city’s smart growth crowd), and it becomes clear why Wells was left on his own.
“He does not command a lot of respect from councilmembers,” says another councilmember, who adds that Wells’ reputation “has been in a slow, downward spiral ever since he got here.”
Or, put another way by a different Wells colleague: “He’s full of shit sometimes,” said the councilmember, who says Wells is “kind of flaky,” “goofy” and thinks too highly of his own political skills. “He wants to be a player but a) he doesn’t know how to and b) he’s not reliable.”
Those harsh assessments, echoed by other councilmembers and council staff in somewhat nicer terms, come as no surprise to Wells, who says his colleagues bad-mouth each other all the time, but that he’s proud of his legislative record.
“I’ve been one of the most effective councilmembers,” says Wells. “But that doesn’t mean that I have to be everybody’s friend.”
Wells continues: “My loyalty is definitely to the citizens of the whole city, not to someone who is wanting to trade votes with me. I mean, that’s what makes people cynical about their government.”
One more? “The most important thing, again, is to be able to sleep at night and to feel like what you’re doing is right.”
One example of Wells’ style cited by some of his colleagues is his on-the-dais maneuver in May to make a new tax on municipal bonds from outside the District permanent, against Brown’s wishes.
Brown had proposed the tax as a way to avoid Mayor Vince Gray’s proposal to increase taxes on those making more than $200,000 a year. Brown won support of more fiscally conservative councilmembers for the move, with the understanding that the new bond tax would disappear after a revised revenue projection.
But Wells mucked it up when he passed an amendment to make the new tax permanent, a move he could only accomplish by horse trading votes with Councilmember Vincent Orange in full view.
“I guess he thought that was real clever,” says one of the anonymous councilmembers.
A third anonymous councilmember says that Wells’ move on the municipal bond taxes had much more to do with Brown’s decision to punish Wells than Navigatorgate did.
But Wells says that’s not true. Wells says he went to the chairman’s office and told Brown of his plans before putting forward the amendment. Brown didn’t object, Wells says. “He didn’t use any authority of the chair to try and dial it back.”
Brown’s spokeswoman declined to enter the fray over the municipal bond tax.
The recent battle over redrawing ward boundary lines, which Wells described as “brutal,” also contributed to some council ill-will being directed at Wells. But Wells, who did pretty well for himself in the final redistricting plan, makes no apologies.
“[Councilmembers] want to know why I didn’t deal with them and bargain away parts of my ward and come to some sort of agreement. I played hard ball with redistricting because I was not going to bargain away part of my ward,” says Wells. “The feelings of the councilmembers are far less important to me than the feelings of the residents of Ward 6.”
OK, sounds good, but like it or not, the feelings of councilmembers matter.
Since his demotion, Wells and his allies have been talking about what a “lost opportunity” it is to lose a chairman of the transportation committee whose whole shtick is to make the city more “liveable” and “walkable.” And while the lion’s share of that blame for that lost opportunity deserves to be placed at the feet of Brown, and perhaps chalked up to the legislative jealousies of other councilmembers, Wells isn’t without blame. He poked Brown too many times and had no one covering his flank.
One of the lessons of Fenty’s defeat is that building and nurturing political relationships—whether through favors, friendship or fear—matters. Wells didn’t learn that lesson, became expendable in Brown’s (and some of his colleagues’) view, and paid the price.
* * *
DISORDERED MONEY ORDERS
The Washington Post continued to make life unpleasant for Mayor Vince Gray this week, with a front-page story about how Hizzoner’s campaign last year apparently took cash donations above the legal limit of $25 and reported them as money orders. Many of those donations came from cab drivers, the Post reported.
Gray says he doesn’t know nothing about nothing, but if anyone on his campaign willfully broke the law, they ought to be punished.
Turns out Gray might not be the only pol who received cash donations above $25 that were reported as money orders.
Campaign records show Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser took in $1,500 in campaign contributions from three cab companies owned by Yitbarek Syume. There were three donations of $500 each, the maximum amount for a ward race, and each donation was listed as a money order. Syume’s companies are Jet Cab Company, Mutual Cab Company, and Olympic Cab Company, which was misspelled as “Ocyipic Cabs” in Bowser’s campaign filings.
But Syume, who was arrested in fall of 2009 as part of the FBI’s cab corruption investigation—known as “cash cab”—that recently led to the conviction of Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham’s former chief of staff, told the FBI he gave Bowser’s campaign cash, not money orders.
In notes taken by an FBI agent during several debriefings of Syume early last year, Syume says he helped organize a fundraiser for Bowser because he wanted her to support efforts to bring a taxi medallion system to the District. Syume said he coordinated with Bowser’s campaign manager to set up the fundraiser at Abol Ethiopian Cuisine on Georgia Avenue NW. As part of the debriefing, the FBI played conversations it had recorded between Syume and his associates in which the fundraiser was mentioned.
“Syume gave the campaign manager cash, but he is unsure if Bowser observed Syume doing so,” the FBI notes say. Later on, the FBI notes say that “Syume does recall giving cash to Bowser’s campaign manager.”
In the hundreds of other donations Bowser’s 2008 campaign received, there are only a handful of others listed as money order donations. Two other cab companies are listed as giving $500 in money orders at the same time as Syume’s companies. One of the companies is Pan Am Cab Company, which is listed in city records as owned by Tewelde Measho. The FBI notes indicate that the feds recorded one conversation between Syume and Pan Am’s owner “Tewolde,” in which campaign contributions were discussed. Meashe could not be reached for comment.
Of course the usual caveat applies to Syume’s statements to the FBI: He’d been busted trying to bribe his way into control of the D.C. taxi industry, and it was in his best interest to dish to the feds any dirt he could about elected officials. His lawyer says Syume’s been totally honest since he was arrested, and could be called to testify as a government witness in upcoming cases related to the cash cab investigation.
Bowser’s got a sterling ethical reputation on the council, and has never been charged with any wrongdoing related to the cash cab investigation. She says she doesn’t remember attending the fundraiser Syume mentions. She adds that her campaign didn’t have formal titles like “campaign manager,” and she doesn’t know to which aide Syume is referring.
“We conducted a third party audit to close out our campaign—a step above normal practice,” Bowser emails LL. “Our audit was clean and in compliance with OCF guidelines.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
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