June 3, 2013

WHEN THE D.C. Council voted this year to reprimand council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and strip him of some committee responsibilities, Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said it was important to send a message that unethical behavior would not be tolerated. Why then is the council having taxpayers foot the bill to defend those very actions?

Mr. Graham is being sued by a developer who claims the council member wrongly interfered with a land deal during Mr. Graham’s tenure on the Metro board. The transit agency turned him down when he asked it to cover his legal fees and any possible judgment that might result. Independent investigators determined that Mr. Graham’s actions violated the agency’s code of conduct, and Metro, also named in the $100 million federal lawsuit brought by Banneker Ventures, concluded that he went beyond the scope of his official duties and thus could not be defended with public money.

But the general counsel for the D.C. Council, V. David Zvenyach, confirmed Monday that he is representing Mr. Graham in the case. “I’m on jury duty today and will have no further comment,” he e-mailed us. Mr. Zvenyach recused himself from the council’s consideration of the reprimand in February because he had represented Mr. Graham during Metro’s investigation of his actions and a separate lawsuit brought by the city’s fired lottery procurement officer.

Mr. Mendelson, who apparently okayed the decision, explained in a statement that Mr. Graham “was sued in both his official and personal capacity. Because he was sued in his official capacity, the Council’s General Counsel is representing him for purposes of dismissing the suit. If the suit is dismissed in so far as his official capacity, but not his personal capacity, General Counsel will not continue to represent him.”

Neither the District nor the D.C. Council is named in the suit. The chairman’s statement said that a suit against a government employee in his or her official capacity is tantamount to a suit against the District. Surely, though, as Metro made clear in its rejection of Mr. Graham’s request, improper actions undertaken by public officials are not entitled to a publicly financed defense.

Mr. Graham denies that he did anything improper, and he disagrees with the judgments of both the Metro board and the D.C. Council. But D.C. officials did not differ with Metro on the basic set of facts: that Mr. Graham crossed a line when he tried to get the developer to abandon the Metro project and steer at least some of the business to a developer he preferred. The District’s willingness to go to bat for Mr. Graham gives his actions an imprimatur that is sadly at odds with its talk of no tolerance for even the perception of bad behavior. It may mean that taxpayers will ultimately pay the price for Mr. Graham’s misconduct.