Jim Graham and the changing art of the political deal

October 16, 2012

Graham broke internal Metro rules, a report concludes, but not the law. (Sarah L. Voisin — The Washington Post)

The Metro board’s investigation into Jim Graham’s handling of a WMATA land deal found that the D.C. Council member broke internal conflict-of-interest rules while serving on the board. But, in the end, the report will likely have greater consequences for the District’s political culture that it will for Jim Graham.

The aftermath has been harsh on Graham, particularly in the Washington Post’s opinion pages. Graham’s “breach of his public duty and his dishonesty about it are incompatible with holding public office,” read a weekend editorial. Columnist Colby King wrote that Graham “abused his office, brought discredit upon the council and embarrassed D.C. residents”; he called on the council to censure Graham and for the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability to weigh in as well.

Aside from the bruise to his reputation, the official consequences will be light. Graham (D-Ward 1) is no longer a member of the Metro board and thus cannot be sanctioned by that body. The independent investigators from the white-shoe law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft did not identify any criminal acts in Graham’s attempts to muscle developer Warren Williams Jr. out of the land deal by bartering his support for Williams’s attempts to secure the D.C. lottery contract. Colby makes a strong case that Graham might have run afoul of council ethical rules by losing “complete independence or impartiality” and/or “affecting adversely the confidence of the public in the integrity of government,” but those rules went into effect after the conduct in question, making it unclear whether Graham could be punished under them. Whatever accountability he gets will likely have to wait until he’s up for reelection in 2014.

The most enduring consequences of the Metro probe might be altering the conceptions of what constitutes legitimate political behavior in D.C. government. In other words, practitioners of the art of the political deal would do well to become more artful.

Graham, in comments before the report was released, said he had done nothing wrong in raising questions about Williams, his firm, Banneker Ventures, and its ability to do the job. The report, in fact, validates to some degree Graham’s concerns about the capacity of Banneker Ventures to follow through on the Metro project: “In the two years that Banneker Ventures spent negotiating with Metro, Banneker Ventures did not adequately address the concerns raised by the Metro Board and did not solve various other problems that it faced,” the report notes, adding that Graham held “legitimate concerns with public safety and welfare” in addition to his “personal dislike of Mr. Williams.”

But what investigators found objectionable is not that Graham didn’t want Williams to have the land deal, it’s that he went behind closed doors to horse-trade his interests as a council member — thus “pitt[ing] the interests of the Council of the District of Columbia against the interests of Metro, and thereby unnecessarily created a conflict of interest, or, at the least, the appearance of a conflict of interest.” Investigators also found Graham “acted contrary to his duty to appear impartial” by pushing another developer for the project, though they found no evidence Graham stood to benefit from that developer’s selection.

Now political horse-trading — while unsavory, especially this particular case — is not illegal (so long as there’s no personal benefit attached). If you can strike a deal to further your political and/or policy agenda, well, that’s politics. Graham, as the report makes clear and as longtime council watchers know, is an unrepentant transactionalist at heart — something that the voters who have reelected him three times seem not to mind.

But the Graham affair highlights the enormous chits D.C. Council members have to trade for political interests against public interests — in particular, the ability to approve or disapprove large city contracts. If the Metro report and the wringer Graham’s now being put through gives council members pause before politicizing the contracting process once again, that’s all for the good. If it leads them to consider giving up contracting approval altogether, even better.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · October 16, 2012