March 1, 2013

After the D.C. Council voted to publicly reprimand member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) for improper conduct in the award of a city lottery contract and a Metro property development contract, Graham announced himself “relieved,” adding, “It’s over and we can move forward.”

Not so fast.

Granted, the council may have gone as far as it wishes to go with Jim Graham. Most members seem satisfied with formally expressing their disapproval of his conduct. By an 11 to 2 vote, they decided to give Graham a public spanking for embarrassing them and “for affecting adversely the confidence of the public in the integrity of government.”

The council’s work, however, should not stop there.

The Graham saga raises serious questions about the adequacy of the District’s own mechanism for ferreting out abuse by public officials. That job, by law, belongs to Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby. In Graham’s case, the IG performed miserably.

The council’s Government Operations Committee, chaired by Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), oversees the Inspector General’s Office. McDuffie should conduct an oversight hearing on the IG’s performance.

Were it not for the extensive October report on Graham by the Metro-retained law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham and Taft, and the hard-hitting, well-argued opinion memorandum last month by the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, the council would have had little official evidence with which to sanction Graham.

The ethics board’s impressive review drew upon the 18,000 pages of sworn testimony and documents amassed in support of the Metro report, as well as upon Graham’s written response to the board and his lawyer’s arguments before the board.

In contrast, the inspector general’s 19-page report on Graham’s activities was worthless.

Had Willoughby pursued the allegations against Graham with the same degree of diligence and skill that Metro did, Graham’s serious violation of the public trust might have been brought to light and dealt with months ago.

Unfortunately, the inspector general’s January 2012 report on the award of the D.C. lottery contract — of which only one paragraph was devoted to allegations about Graham — offered little except, perhaps, a couple of embarrassingly wrong conclusions. For example:

“The OIG did not find sufficient evidence to support or conclude that the councilmember [Graham] had acted improperly.”

And this gem:

“The OIG finds that the statement attributed to the council member, without more, such as some sort of quid pro quo, does not reflect misconduct rising to the level of a violation of a standard of conduct.”

Willoughby reached those sweeping conclusions despite the fact that Graham refused even to be interviewed by his office. How does a member of the D.C. Council, facing misconduct allegations, evade investigation by the city’s chief watchdog?

That is one of the questions that McDuffie and his Government Operations Committee should pursue.

When I asked Willoughby how he could conclude his investigation without Graham’s participation, he gave his stock reply to media inquiries: “We stand by our report.”

What a pity.

Lottery contract bidders said that in a meeting in Graham’s office the council member offered to support businessman Warren W. Williams’s winning bid on the lottery contract if Williams would drop his winning bid on a Metro project deal. Yet Willoughby reported that his office couldn’t find a “quid pro quo.”

Unlike Willoughby, the ethics board had no trouble identifying the “quid pro quo.” The ethics board declared:

“Councilmember Graham attempts to characterize his conduct as no more than ‘sharp-elbowed political behavior.’ This characterization is misplaced. . . .

“Councilmember Graham’s ‘sharp-elbowed’ tactics were designed, not in support of the public interest, but rather to exact punishment on Mr. Williams and steer a benefit to LaKritz Adler, his campaign contributor. Councilmember Graham does not distinguish between the political ‘horse trading’ that takes place among elected public officials acting on public business and the inappropriate quid pro quo he attempted to negotiate with a private citizen who was pursuing his own interests.”

The ethics board continued: “Graham’s quid pro quo offer to support Mr. Williams on the lottery contract if Banneker Ventures [associated with Williams] would abandon the [Metro] development contract was part of a concerted effort to benefit LaKritz Adler.”

Graham has challenged the ethics board’s characterization of what happened and says that his reservations about the lottery bid were based on legitimate concerns about Williams’s track record.

What say ye, Willoughby?

Hopefully, the inspector general will be given a chance to explain what he did, as well as what he failed to do — and why — at the witness table, before the Government Operations Committee.

The council’s work is not done.

Meanwhile, down at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, lawyers may well be mulling over the Justice Department’s primer on illegal bid-rigging schemes. One scheme, called bid suppression, occurs when a competitor who has previously bid withdraws the bid so that another competitor’s bid will be accepted, and in return, the one who withdrew may receive a payoff — perhaps a contract from someplace else.

But who really knows?

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.