D.C. officials’ use of lobbyists as their attorneys raises questions

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly reported that attorney Frederick D. Cooke Jr. currently lobbies city government on behalf of the Corrections Corp. of America. Cooke formerly lobbied for the company, but is not listed in its most recent disclosure filing. This version has been corrected.

Reporter August 4, 2011

The District is home to more lawyers per capita than any state in the union, yet when city officials or those aggrieved by the D.C. government find themselves in need of representation, they gravitate to a small, familiar fraternity.

For instance, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), and members Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) have at one time or another been represented by Frederick D. Cooke Jr., the city’s former corporation counsel. For a time, it seemed Reed Smith partner A. Scott Bolden represented every person with a beef against the city. And the issue was renewed this week with the revelation that council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) turned to David W. Wilmot to represent her before the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance regarding questions about her constituent services fund.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015. View Archive

The probe cleared her of the most serious charges leveled against her — that she had mismanaged her service money and had introduced legislation benefiting the landlord of her ward office in return for below-market rents.

Wilmot no doubt did a creditable job representing Alexander, but the quality of his advocacy is not in question. What is questionable, and is particularly questionable for a city government under a microscope, is that Alexander would turn to perhaps the John A. Wilson Building’s most powerful and best-paid lobbyist for legal aid. Wilmot represents Wal-Mart, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Comcast, pharmaceutical manufacturers, hotel owners and others, according to city filings.

Alexander said the decision to retain Wilmot, whose roots in city politics go back decades, was a no-brainer.

“David Wilmot has been a family friend for years,” she said. “I’ve known him long before I was a council member.” She points out that her father used to play tennis with Wilmot and that he used to live in Hillcrest, in her ward.

No doubt that friendship is powerful, and no doubt that District politics is a small world, as Alexander puts it. “It’s kind of hard to find someone that you can’t connect to something,” she said. “You know how they say there’s six degrees of separation? In D.C., there’s two.”

But you don’t have to be an ethics maven to see the potential for at least the appearance of malfeasance in allowing lobbyists to render services to the politicians they lobby.

All the same, here’s what an ethics maven thinks: “What you’ve just described is quite troubling,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a watchdog group. “It could well be a way for a special interest group to funnel resources to officeholders. . . . Most troubling, it could represent a means of gaining the allegiance and indebtment of the officeholder to the special interest.”

A lot of doubts could be cleared up if there was any transparency about how and how much officeholders are paying for the services of their lawyer-lobbyists. But there’s no disclosure requirement.

Alexander declined to discuss whether she paid Wilmot a fair market rate. “He was paid,” she said. “I’m not going to discuss my fee. . . . That’s my personal information.”

There’s a similar lack of transparency about Cooke’s representation of Brown and Thomas. He lobbies for Clear Channel Outdoor, which owns billboards in the city, and formerly lobbied on behalf of the Corrections Corp. of America, which runs an annex of the D.C. jail, and other interests.

Cooke and Wilmot noted that lawyers and lobbyists are bound by rules of professional conduct and city regulations, and they said they adhere to their requirements — which include avoiding conflicts of interest.

“The fact of the matter is, with respect to persons I represent on the council, I don’t lobby them” Cooke said. “I don’t lobby Marion. I don’t go to him and say I’d like you to vote in favor of XYZ legislation or I’d like you to introduce XYZ legislation.” And now that he is representing Brown and Thomas in the course of their legal troubles, Cooke said he will no longer lobby them.

But questions will persist as long as Brown and Thomas remain less than fully forthcoming with details of their financing, and Cooke said he’s being as specific as professional rules allow in saying they are “like every other client I have, that is to say, a fee for service.”

Note that none of the ethics bills being considered by the D.C. Council addresses the issue of registered lobbyists representing lawmakers in legal disputes — let alone their well-known roles in campaign fundraising.

Wilmot said he does not join Cooke in pledging not to lobby current and former clients, as allowed under city law. “I know how to conduct myself,” he said. “If they change the rules, we will abide by them.”

For her part, Alexander said she would be happy to meet with her old friend anytime.

“My door is always open to David Wilmot,” she said.

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