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D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray this afternoon described the motivation behind a pair of stories alleging improprieties on his part as being “clearly political.”
The first, and more serious, story was penned by Jeffrey Anderson in this morning’s Washington Times. It detailed various small jobs done on Gray’s home by William C. Smith & Co., the politically powerful local development company. The second, a Washington Post story by Tim Craig, involved his use of council stationery to ask Comcast for a $20,000 donation to the local delegation to the Democratic State Committee. Gray addressed the controversies in an afternoon appearance on NewsChannel 8’s NewsTalk With Bruce DePuyt.
Regarding the DNC allegations, Gray made the case that the fundraising effort was focused on voting-rights awareness, and thus kosher. Given that the check benefited local Democrats attending a political convention, it’s awfully questionable distinction to make. But he gets points for this realization: “‘If I had to do it over again, I certainly wouldn’t have used the stationery.”
As for the work on his Hillcrest home, Gray insisted “there was no impropriety that was involved.”
Gray went on describe his relationship with Chris Smith, the president and CEO of WCS&Co., which, he says, stretches back some 15 years to his time as executive director of Covenant House, when Smith;s company built youth housing and other projects. “There’s a longstanding relationship here,” Gray said. “Chris Smith is a guy of impeccable integrity. I like to phrase it that he’s the best blend of economic development and social justice that hes ever seen.”
The renovation project, he says, came about this way: “When I wanted to do a renovation on my house, I turned to him, and he said that he though that his company could help me.”
Gray repeated that he paid in full for the work that was done, that no favors were extended. He went out to emphasize that this was intended to be no small job, that WCS&Co. helped identify an architect that he paid for. The small jobs mentioned in the Times story—-painting a room, changing a door, washing a driveway—-were incidental. “Had this larger project not been on the table, they never would have done the work,” Gray insisted.
Then there’s the issue of the payment. The WaTimes story implied that Gray only paid for the work done once the paper started asking questions. Gray says he got an invoice on Oct. 30, and paid it within two weeks, adding that he was not aware of reportorial inquiries until Monday, after the bill was paid. “My payment was not in response to anticipation of a story from the Washington Times.”
DePuyt asked a smart followup about whether he had put any money down, as home-improvement contractors often require. “That may well have been the case if we had started the renovation,” Gray said, adding, “There was no project that had been authorized to go forward. We were in the architectural development stage at that point.”
Then there’s the permit issue; the Times story found no evidence that nay permits had been issued. Said Gray, “There were no permits that were required. I cannot imagine that a permit would have been required for this work.”
For more explanations on the renovation issue, do see Jonathan O’Connell‘s reporting today for Washington Business Journal. A William C. Smith & Co. exec explained to him that a company subsidiary called WCS Construction LLC did the work, describing it as “a Ward 8 business….they hire local contractors and that’s really important in this city.”
The exec, Carol Chatham, responded to the idea that her company did the work hoping to receive contracts thusly:
“The council does not award development projects. That comes through the mayor’s office of economic development,” she said. Given the lousy mayor-council relations, she said, “if we were trying to curry favor with the mayor we certainly wouldn’t be doing favors for the chairman of the council.”
She’s got a point there.
In all, not a bad first-day reaction from Gray—-defensive at times, sure, and his accusations of political motivations were unnecessarily ugly, but he exhibited some awareness that there are legitimate questions that need to be answered. Whether this turns into a two-day story or something more depends on some questions yet to be answered: Has this WCS Construction done other similar home improvement work—-for politicians or anyone else? Will the firm continue handling Gray’s home renovation project? Was the work priced appropriately? Will Gray release the invoices for public examination?
With regard to the fundraising questions, DePuyt asked Gray if he’d be willing to have lawyer Bob Bennett, currently examining other D.C. Council ethics issues, examine the matter. Said the chairman, “I’d be happy for him to take a look at it.”
Then DePuyt asked the money question: He asked Gray if he thought that the appearance of the stories represents a “brushback pitch” from the Fenty camp. Said Gray: “Absolutely. I think it’s clearly political.”
Gray insisted the stories would have no bearing on his decision whether to run against Fenty or not: “You called it a brushback pitch, I used to play baseball…When you get in the batters’ box you better be ready for what comes.”