As noted Tuesday, D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander is currently being represented in ballot petition challenge proceedings by David W. Wilmot, the courtly lawyer and prominent Wilson Building lobbyist.
T.his is particularly notable because it appears to be the first time a lobbyist has represented a city official since the new ethics bill passed last year by the council went into effect
The emergency bill passed on Jan. 4 was signed Sunday by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). Among the bill’s many provisions is this: “No lobbyist or registrant ... shall provide legal representation, or other professional services, to an official in the legislative or executive branch ... at no cost or at a rate that is less than the lobbyist or registrant would routinely bill for the representation or service in the marketplace.”
In other words, lobbyists can’t give the officials they lobby a discount.
So are Alexander and Wilmot abiding by this new stricture? Both say that they are, but neither will say what rate is being paid, calling into question just how enforceable the no-discount provision actually is.
”It’s no one’s business,” Alexander said when asked whether she was paying Wilmot his market rate. “What is the market rate? I don’t know what the market rate is.”
Alexander declined to say how much she was paying, expect to say “whatever he’s charging me.” And notably, she said she’s paying him out of her own pocket, not out of her campaign account. It is permissible to pay a lawyer doing campaign business, which a ballot petition challenge certainly is, out of a campaign account.
Spending from a campaign account, of course, is disclosed to the city’s Office of Campaign Finance. Personal legal expenditures are not, and Alexander isn’t volunteering the information. “If anything comes out of my personal wallet, it’s my personal business,” Alexander said.
She defended paying for her attorney out of her personal funds, saying that her campaign donors don’t want their money spent on lawyers. “Campaign literature, palm cards, T-shirts, phone banking, mailings -- those are the things you pay for in a campaign, not for attorneys,” she said.
Note that in the last mayoral campaign, combatants Gray and Adrian Fenty both hired high-powered lawyers to litigate election disputes; both paid their lawyers via their campaign accounts.
Now even if officials were required to disclose what rate they pay their lobbyist-lawyers, proving that the rate is less than what is “routinely” billed would be tricky if not impossible.
The vast majority of lawyers don’t have a single rate they charge every client, but a variety of rates based on the type of work, the client’s circumstances and the fee structure -- hourly, contingency or flat-rate to name a few.
For instance, Wilmot says lawyers at his firm have a “friends and family rate” that’s different, he said, from someone “who just walks in from the street.”
Wilmot, whom Alexander described last year as a “family friend for years,” declined to say what rate she is getting. But he said working lawyers are bound to high legal and ethical standards.
”We have to be very mindful of our own code of professional conduct,” Wilmot said. “If we’re violating some statutory provision, bar counsel will be mindful of that. ... I’m not going to jeopardize my license.”