Mendelson expresses frustration with Jim Graham ethics probe

February 12, 2013

Mendelson finds himself with the uncomfortable task of potentially scolding a colleague. (Sarah L. Voisin — The Washington Post)

Updated 6:55 p.m. with additional comments from Mendelson

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) ended five days on silence regarding an ethics report on colleague Jim Graham, lamenting that the board did not take more definitive action.

“I’m disappointed,” Mendelson said after leaving a council hearing Tuesday. “They had everybody hoping that this would be resolved but … after several months it’s not resolved.

Mendelson said in a subsequent interview that he will “make a recommendation for some type of disciplinary action” after speaking to his colleagues privately over the coming days. “I would like to see us resolve this quickly,” he said.

The Board of Ethics and Government Accountability said last week that there was a “substantial body of evidence” to suggest that Graham (D-Ward 1) had broken the city’s code of employee conduct by intervening in a 2008 contracting matter. But it dismissed its case without opening a formal investigation or recommending sanctions because, it said, Graham could not have been sanctioned for his behavior under the laws in place when he is alleged to have acted improperly.

Mendelson, who has been traveling over the weekend, said he was expecting more definitive guidance: “The board, being independent of the council or the executive branch is in a better position to look dispassionately on issues and make recommendations that reflect the intent of our laws,” he said. “But that’s not what we got.”

Graham has categorically denied having any improper motives regarding the incident in question, which revolves around a May 2008 meeting in which he is alleged to have asked a businessman to relinquish a real estate contract in return for Graham’s support of an unrelated contract. Graham’s attorneys argued that any intervention was “sharp-elbowed” politics but hardly a breach of city ethics laws.

The ethics board rejected the “sharp-elbowed” characterization but determined it would be a waste of resources to further investigate the matter when, at the end of the process, it could not sanction Graham in any case.

The council, on the other hand, could sanction Graham.

A member may, by a majority vote, be reprimanded — a less serious penalty that, according to council rules, “is not punishment or discipline and, therefore, does not require an investigation or separate hearing.” The more serious step of censure requires two-thirds of members to find “a gross failure to meet the highest standards of personal and professional conduct” and can be taken only upon the recommendation of a five-member ad hoc committee.

One member, Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), has called on Mendelson to appoint such a committee, which would have 30 days to complete its business.

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 · February 12, 2013