The D.C. Council reprimanded member Jim Graham on Monday for improperly intervening in a dispute over the city lottery contract four years ago, stamping a permanent blemish on the four-term lawmaker’s public record.
During an emotional meeting called by council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) to address the matter, council members voted 11 to 2 to publicly reprimand Graham (D-Ward 1). They also stripped him of his power to oversee District liquor licenses and alcohol issues as head of the Human Services Committee.
Graham, who will remain chairman of the committee, is only the second council member under Home Rule to be publicly rebuked by colleagues. The council stopped short of censuring Graham — the punishment that council members meted out to Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) in 2010 for his role in a personal services contract.
“Today is an uncomfortable day for the council of the District of Columbia,” Mendelson said before the vote. “The situation has to be extraordinary to come to the point that we are at today.”
Though the reprimand is a personal and political setback, Graham chose to accept it without first defending himself to his colleagues. Instead, he said after the vote he was “relieved.”
“It’s over and we can move forward,” said Graham, who has argued for months that he has done nothing wrong. “I can get on with the business of the city.”
But questions remained Monday about how quickly he will be able to move past allegations that he sought to undermine the spirit of an independent contracting process.
Despite Graham’s record of success with Ward 1 voters, at least three candidates are considering challenging him in next year’s primary. And council member David Grosso (I-At Large) announced Monday that he won’t support Graham if he seeks reelection.
“You have been entrusted with this power from the people of the District, and if you don’t use it appropriately, you should be punished,” Grosso said.
The D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability scolded Graham this month after it found “substantial” evidence that he broke the District’s code of employee conduct in 2008 by intervening with a local businessman in a Metro land deal. The board declined to sanction Graham, saying it could not levy penalties when there were no penalties in place for council members at the time of Graham’s conduct.
The controversy stems from Graham’s role as the council’s representative on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
Graham has been accused of offering to support businessman Warren W. Williams’s bid on the lottery contract if Williams would forgo his interest in a Metro land deal.
The board concluded that Graham wanted to steer the project to a political contributor. Graham has argued that Williams’s record as the former owner of Club U, which was shut down by the city after a fatal stabbing there in 2005, made him disinclined to support his efforts to get a public contract.
Last year, an independent investigation by the Metro board concluded that Graham improperly intermingled his council and board responsibilities. The U.S. attorney’s office also is investigating the lottery contract, though Graham’s attorneys said he is not a target of that probe.
Mendelson said the council needed to act to send a message it would not tolerate even the perception of unethical behavior. But Mendelson, on the advice of some council members who did not feel Graham’s conduct rose to the level of Barry’s three years ago, did not pursue a formal censure or remove Graham as head of the Human Services Committee.
Graham and Barry were the only members to vote against the reprimand resolution.
Barry, carrying copies of the 14th Amendment, argued that the council was not being fair to Graham because it did not hold its own investigation before voting on the reprimand.
“This is not about Jim Graham, this is about due process,” Barry said. “Jim Graham has not been given an opportunity to put on a defense before an impartial body. Everybody on this body is not impartial; they are partial.”
Williams sat in the front row of the council chamber during the vote, flanked by his mother and godmother. He declined to comment after the vote.
But his attorney, A. Scott Bolden, pushed back against suggestions that Graham has not been afforded due process. He noted that Graham spoke several times to investigators about his alleged remarks pertaining to Williams at the 2008 meeting.
“The only person that believes it was misinterpreted is Mr. Graham; every other investigative body, organization or individual who has looked at this material has found wrongdoing or inappropriate conduct,” he said. “We’ll wait and see what the U.S. attorney’s position is.”
Despite that uncertainty, Graham sounded confident that the council vote was the last chapter in the controversy. He said it will be up to Ward 1 voters “ in the Democratic primary” next year to decide whether the reprimand overshadows his accomplishments.
“People know my dedication to constituent services, quality-of-life issues and human services, and all that work I can continue now,” Graham said after the vote.
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.