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At the time, it was a big deal—allegations of dirty tricks and conspiracy filled the air and social media. Then-Ward 4 D.C. Council candidate Janeese Lewis George last year was aggressively challenging incumbent Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, a close ally of Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Lewis George’s campaign caught Department of Public Works employees in April 2020—just weeks before the primary election—removing 248 of her campaign signs along New Hampshire Ave. NW and other streets. Lewis George’s campaign was quick to blame the mayor, saying Bowser’s DPW employees were trying to save the faltering Todd campaign.
Todd denied any involvement. DPW officials insisted there was no conspiracy, later apologizing for the actions of two new employees who had been sent out to take down illegal signs and mistakenly removed Lewis George’s legal posters. DPW says it re-posted 150 of the campaign signs within a few days. Another 98 were too badly damaged to be reinstalled.
The dirty tricks allegation still peppered the final days of the campaign. On primary election day, June 2, Lewis George thrashed Todd, 55 percent to 43 percent, and went on to win the November election. But just after the primary, the Lewis George campaign filed a sign complaint seeking almost $3,000 in damages and campaign time lost with the city’s Office of Risk Management, the agency that handles civil monetary claims against the government.
Lewis George was sworn in as a councilmember on January 2, but the sign dispute was not settled until just a few days ago. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, City Paper learned that the Lewis George complaint was formally closed on April 30. The official report says the case was “closed, abandoned” because the Lewis George campaign stopped responding to months of emails requesting more details on exact monetary damages.
Michelle Whittaker, Lewis George’s campaign manager, tells City Paper that’s correct. After November, she says, the campaign started winding down and there was no one left on staff to pursue the reimbursement claim. The campaign essentially abandoned its claim. “Councilmember Lewis George is singularly focused on serving the people of Ward 4 by helping residents get vaccinated, ensuring our schools reopen safely, and fighting for affordable housing,” Whittaker says. Some observers say it also wasn’t a good look for a new councilmember to pursue a claim against the government she now oversees.
Still, the campaign sign dispute is a good example of how a trip through the bureaucracy can snare even claims that appear simple.
In August of last year, Lewis George campaign leader Zach Teutsch officially filed for compensation with the District’s little known risk management office. According to the FOIA documents, the claim letter said despite the DPW apology, “it’s clear the DPW’s actions were targeted specifically toward our campaign.”
The Lewis George campaign letter asked for $2,995 in damages, spelling out in detail it wanted $400 for compensating the campaign manager’s lost time spent on the issue, $300 for the communications director’s lost time, and $300 for the campaign chairman. There was also $150 for the senior field organizer. The replacement cost for the signs themselves was listed as $1,535.
In one stunning part of the submission, the campaign also asked for $310 “per unit cost” to put the new signs back up. That alone would have cost the District more than $76,000. In a follow-up filing, however, the campaign admitted it had made a “typo” and that it was only asking for $250 to repost the 248 signs.
It was not the end of the bureaucratic thicket.
In a letter dated Dec. 1, 2020, months after the campaign’s original filing, the risk management office questioned the amount of money being sought. It asked the Lewis George campaign to better detail its losses and costs. The office specifically asked why the Lewis George campaign was seeking compensation for 248 signs when 150 of the signs had been quickly reposted by DPW. “Please explain why your claim should not be evaluated based on the loss of 98 signs given that 150 were restored,” it said. “The demand to compensate for the replacement of 248 signs does not appear to be supported by the claim documentation…” wrote claim specialist Robert R. Carter.
The December letter also asked for lots of details—“any receipts, ordering forms, or other correspondence documenting … the vendor who produced the signs … the date the order was placed, paid or delivered … the unit price number of signs ordered and amount paid … additional costs charged by the vendor … shipping costs if any.” The letter went on to say the documentation should be for both the original signs ordered and any replacement signs.
According to the documents, the Lewis George campaign did not respond to several follow-up requests from December through April of this year. In a final submission for the record, officials wrote, “Claimant has not responded to our request to provide additional documents. Instructed to close the file as recommended … closing file as abandoned.”