Colbert I. King
Colbert I. King
Opinion Writer

Jim Graham’s conduct violations

This, fellow District residents, is how dedicated, smart people do it.

Charged by Metro with examining the conduct of D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) during his service as the council’s representative on the Metro board, the law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham and Taft has concluded that Graham violated his “duty to place the public interest foremost in any dealings involving Metro.” Graham, the investigative report said, clearly violated the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority board’s code of conduct when he attempted to “barter” a developer’s bid for a D.C. Lottery contract in exchange for the developer’s withdrawal from a project near a Metro station.

Colbert I. King

King writes a column -- sometimes about D.C., sometimes about politics -- that runs on Saturdays.

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I and other journalists have written about the suspicion that Graham had done such a thing, only to experience Graham’s expressions of denial and great indignation, as well as his whining to our editors.

Contrast the Metro-ordered investigation with the timid lottery probe conducted by D.C. Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby. Graham dazzled the IG investigators with his fancy footwork and got whitewashed for his trouble.

After reading Metro’s report, Willoughby should resign in shame.

Contrast, too, the Metro investigation that “questioned thirteen current and former Metro Board members, six current and former Metro employees, and fourteen other involved persons, in some instances under oath and using a court reporter,” with the laughable event called a public hearing that was staged this week by the D.C. Council’s Finance and Revenue Committee.

The purpose was to examine the city’s troubled property-tax appraisal program.

Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi and his tax-office crew sat it out while citizens and council members vented about property-tax appraisals. Then Gandhi et al. took the witness seats and denied everything, secure in the knowledge that committee Chairman Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and business leaders had their backs and that all would be well once the hearing adjourned.

It was a joke.

The start time for the city’s first major league postseason baseball game since 1933 was 1 p.m. Wednesday. So Evans fashioned a solution: Begin the hearing at 9 a.m., recess at noon and resume after the game.

The morning session packed in several witnesses, including William J. DiVello, former internal affairs chief of the CFO’s office, who resigned last week after a feud with officials over releasing an audit.

Except for DiVello, the morning’s public witnesses seemed to get the bum’s rush, as if they were shabbily dressed customers at a snooty art auction.

Everyone got to see and hear DiVello and — after the game — more public witnesses, and then, around 10 p.m., Gandhi and his crew.

The public witnesses were fillers: folks invited to testify to ensure that all political bases were covered. An activist here, a distraught homeowner there, a pro-Gandhi business supporter, a few Gandhi critics. A little of this, a little of that and, voila, a public hearing.

It was an opportunity for council members to vent after several critical Post articles about Gandhi’s tax office and property tax settlements. And it was a chance for Gandhi to dispute all charges.

Evans revealed his affinity for Gandhi, telling the audience that the CFO’s office had refuted some of the issues raised in Post reports.

He followed up in his constituent newsletter on Thursday, repeating his praise for Gandhi’s “leadership in helping to restore our credit rating.”

Evans acknowledged “management issues” and “an issue with regard to transparency in the OCFO.” But he predicted that, as a result of his hearing, “we will see more disclosures of the subjects and outcomes” of audits and more “community engagement.” End of story.

Conclusion: Nothing much is going to be changed by the council.

Another day, another missed opportunity to delve into the troubling lack of transparency in a city agency that should be the freest from deceit. Instead, that office is among the least accountable.

In his testimony Wednesday, DiVello charged that Gandhi’s top aides pressured him to “quarantine” critical audits by leaving them in draft status.

The CFO’s office does this to shield internal reports from Freedom of Information Act requests, as drafts are exempt from public disclosure. Gandhi told the committee that reports don’t linger in draft, and he provided evidence that most audit reports had been completed.

Perhaps because of the anticipated cry of “batter up,” the hearing did not examine the extent to which the “draft dodge” is used to hide information from the public.

In a telephone interview with me Thursday, Evans confirmed that he didn’t get into use of the draft stamp. He said he would do so in another hearing. No Metro investigator, he.

Sadly, the CFO’s office used the “draft” mode to block the public from seeing information about Graham reported in an internal investigation. It was the kind of information Metro used to nail him.

In the OCFO world, Gandhi is batter, pitcher and fielder, and he also gets to call the balls and strikes. What’s more, the council lets him do it.

Jim Graham should not be allowed to get away with his shameful behavior. Graham abused his office, brought discredit upon the council and embarrassed D.C. residents. He deserves the council’s censure.

U.S. Attorney Ron Machen should examine that report.

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My Oct. 6 column, “D.C.’s most unfortunate distinction,” said that in March a federal grand jury subpoenaed records from the campaigns of several members of the D.C. Council. Vincent Orange’s campaign should not have been included among those listed, as it has not been subpoenaed. I also misspelled Vickey Wilcher’s first name.

kingc@washpost.com

 
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