October 20, 2012

THE DISTRICT’S new ethics panel has launched a probe into the conduct of D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) related to the city lottery contract and a Metro land deal. Mr. Graham said that he will cooperate but questioned the need for further scrutiny because “all of the essential facts are known.” But not all facts are known, and those that are raise serious questions about whether Mr. Graham violated city codes of conduct.

Last week’s unanimous decision of the Board of Ethics and Accountability follows release of a damning report by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Independent investigators found that Mr. Graham, while on the authority’s board, tried to get a developer to withdraw from a Metro land deal by using the lottery contract as barter. His actions, the report concluded, were a conflict of interest and violated his obligation to place the public first in contract award decisions. Mr. Graham has denied any wrongdoing.

Closely examined was a May 29, 2008 meeting Mr. Graham held with businessman Warren Williams and other representatives of a group seeking the lottery contract. According to the report, Mr. Graham said he would consider supporting Mr. Williams’s lottery bid only if another company Mr. Williams was involved in would drop out of a Metro project for which Mr. Graham preferred a different developer. Mr. Graham, according to his sworn deposition, said he could not recall what was said in that meeting; instead of an outright denial (which had been his response when we first questioned him this year about the allegations) he posited that if something was said it was misinterpreted.

However, James Link, a lobbyist advancing Mr. Williams’s interests at the 2008 meeting, testified there was no misunderstanding. “He certainly connected the dots,” Mr. Link said of Mr. Graham, later adding, “when this happened, it was shocking.” Mr. Link’s recollections were supported by others and ratified by contemporaneous e-mails.

The essential issue to be determined by the ethics panel is whether Mr. Graham breached the public trust. The 62-page report provides a road map, but there are questions still unanswered. For example: Mr. Graham’s counsel stipulated to Metro investigators that “the Chad Williams campaign, may have been involved in the decision-making process for the lottery contract.” Chad Williams (no relation to Warren) ran against Mr. Graham in 2006. In what way could that have been relevant to Mr. Graham’s consideration of city contracting matters?

Then there is Mr. Graham’s involvement in bringing charges against former lottery procurement director Eric Payne; an investigation at the time deemed the charges baseless and concluded Mr. Graham may have lodged them as part of his political agenda.

Robert Spagnoletti, who heads the three-member ethics panel, promises an investigation that’s “properly fair, balanced and as transparent as possible.” We hope he is borne out; the credibility of his new panel will be at stake.