June 15, 2012

Is The Post hounding D.C. Council member Jim Graham, a Democrat who represents Ward 1, which includes the U Street Corridor, Adams Morgan and the central northwest parts of the city?

The popular four-term council member, known for his constituent service and his years running the Whitman-Walker clinic for HIV/AIDS patients, and whom The Post has endorsed for election several times, feels that way.

Interestingly, he’s referring not to editors and reporters, but to The Post’s editorial board, the journalists who write the publication’s unsigned editorials, and to Post columnist Colbert I. King.

Graham told me that a string of editorials and columns by King, questioning his conduct surrounding the D.C. lottery contract in 2008 and 2009, amounted to character assassination, harassment and a “Hitlerian” repetition of the Big Lie — if you say something bad about someone loudly and often enough, people will believe it. (I counted nine editorials and six King columns that were wholly or in part about Graham in the past six months.)

That’s a lot of ink and a lot of heat. It’s uncomfortable for politicians with even the strongest constitutions. So is all this attention merited?

Let’s be clear, Graham is not accused of any crime, and he has not been indicted, arrested or charged. Nor has any Post editorial or column suggested he be arrested or that he resign. Mainly they have said that more answers are needed.

Graham has done much for this city, yes. But he has been, and continues to be, investigated for his conduct surrounding the lottery contract and another multimillion-dollar contract for which he had oversight in 2008-09 as a member of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board, which oversees Metrorail.

At issue is a key meeting in 2008, when Graham met with the initial winning bidders of the D.C. lottery contract. One member of that consortium, Warren Williams Jr., a local businessman with whom Graham has a long history of clashes, was also part of a group bidding on a Metro redevelopment contract for a site on Florida Avenue in Ward 1.

According to participants whose post-meeting e-mails have been disclosed, Graham shocked them by proposing a deal. He would drop his opposition to their bid on the lottery contract if Williams would withdraw from the Metrorail contract.

An attorney for the bidders, told about the meeting that day, wrote back to some of the participants who were considering the Graham offer. “[T]his is complete bs and we are getting very close to corruption, bid rigging and other inappropriate conduct. . . . To even consider it is placing each of us at risk. Period.”

D.C. Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby, in his January report on the lottery contract process, reported on the same meeting, as did Robert G. Andary in 2008, who was then director of integrity and oversight for D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi. Andary was looking into Graham’s allegation that Eric W. Payne, the chief contract officer, was unethical. Andary exonerated Payne, who was later fired and who is suing the District for wrongful dismissal.

Both Willoughby and Andary said they didn’t have enough evidence to conclude that Graham had violated laws or standards of conduct, but it’s clear from their reports that they saw his conduct as troubling. The Metro board is looking at that contract now, and federal prosecutors are investigating the entire process.

They may find nothing. Graham vigorously denies any wrongdoing, saying the allegations are either lies or based on a misunderstanding of what took place at the meeting.

The editorial board doesn’t see it that way, nor does Colbert King. They see the allegations as serious. Keeping the heat on is an appropriate role for a newspaper, especially when two other council members have just resigned after pleading guilty to federal crimes and Mayor Vincent C. Gray is under a shadow of misconduct by his staff.

Politicians should live in some fear of the media; it helps keep them honest. If reporters are covering city hall like a blanket, the politicians behind closed doors will say, “We can’t do that. If The Post gets hold of it, we’re dead.”

I’ve heard from neighborhood activists that one of the reasons the D.C. government is in such a mess is that politicians aren’t afraid of the press anymore.

News outlets with diminished resources, including The Post, the activists say, aren’t at the council meetings and aren’t prowling the halls of the John A. Wilson Building often enough. Too much of the coverage is via streaming video and e-mail, not by being there.

The editorial board, remember, is made up of former beat reporters. They know how to investigate and dig. I, for one, am glad they do.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.