The Post’s View

Why D.C. contracting has become newsworthy

OVER THE PAST couple of weeks, we’ve published several editorials about D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and his involvement in the awarding of city and Metro contracts.

Some readers may wonder why. After all, the stories involve people and companies that are less than household names, and events that took place three or four years ago. They involve a council member whom we’ve enthusiastically endorsed several times, including most recently just two years ago. Aren’t there more pressing issues facing the District?

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So we thought it might be useful to explain why we think this case is important, and why the public is owed answers to the questions that surround it.

To recap: There is evidence, contained both in a report by the D.C. inspector general and in e-mails we have obtained, that Mr. Graham tried to use his sway over a multimillion-dollar D.C. lottery contract to influence who would win a multimillion- dollar Metro development contract. There’s also evidence that Mr. Graham sought to steer at least part of the Metro business to a company that had lost an open competition for the deal. At the time — key events took place in the spring of 2008 — Mr. Graham was representing Ward 1 on the D.C. Council and representing the District on the regional board that oversees Metrorail and Metrobus.

What’s at stake?

The veracity of an elected official.

Mr. Graham denies any wrongdoing. Specifically, in conversations and e-mails with us, he denied that he discussed the Metro contract in a May 29, 2008, meeting with local business people who were seeking the lottery business, one of whom was also vying for the opportunity to develop Metro-owned land in the U Street corridor represented by Mr. Graham. Yet in e-mails among themselves after the meeting, members of the group openly discuss how to respond to what they perceived as Mr. Graham’s demand that they withdraw from the Metro contract.

Shortly after the meeting, one of the participants, lobbyist Jim Link, said he was looking forward to “discussing next steps” with Mr. Graham, who replied, “Thanks. Do you think they will do anything?” Mr. Link replied, “Yes. Wheels are in motion. Everyone took your concerns seriously.”

What did Mr. Graham mean when he asked whether they would “do anything?” What were his “concerns?” The council member has not explained.

The handling of public contracts.

If in the lottery contract Mr. Graham was conditioning his support on unrelated Metro business, D.C. taxpayers are entitled to wonder if their interests were slighted. In both cases the winners of open procurement processes managed by professionals ended up losing the contracts — which raises the question of whether city and regional taxpayers got the best possible deal.

It’s also fair to ask why Mr. Graham was involved at all. In a well-managed local government, elected officials such as Mr. Graham write laws and help set rules; they do not interfere in awarding contracts. But the D.C. Council has given itself the authority to approve or veto all contracts of $1 million or more. Making the situation even more toxic is the perception that campaign contributions are necessary to compete for the District’s business. How else to explain the reassurance e-mailed to Mr. Graham that the lottery seekers had not funded his rivals? The council’s involvement in contracts, as Post columnist Colbert I. King has been writing, is an invitation to mischief, a view that’s echoed in the inspector general’s report. “Rather than nullifying the results of the competitive bid process,” the council might better exercise its legislative powers through the promulgation of law and policy, Charles J. Willoughby wrote.

Weaknesses in oversight.

What does it say about the ability of public institutions to govern themselves that allegations about possible misuse of public offices could go unexamined for so long? Shortly after the May 2008 meeting, a complaint about Mr. Graham’s behavior reached the office of integrity and oversight for the District’s chief financial officer. It failed to follow up. Likewise, Metro officials seemed to view this as a parochial issue best left to District officials. Metro belatedly is reviewing the matter; it also should revise rules that impede its inspector general from investigating alleged misconduct by board members.

The ethical climate in Washington.

Recent months have seen the conviction of Mr. Graham’s longtime chief of staff on federal corruption charges and the news that Mr. Graham declined to accept, but did not report to law enforcement, an envelope stuffed with $2,600 in cash; the conviction of former council member Harry Thomas Jr. for embezzling more than $300,000 in public funds; the preferential treatment accorded a politically connected firm promoted by Mr. Thomas for the city’s lawn-mowing contract at the expense of a firm that had been doing exemplary work at lower cost; the ongoing investigation of council chair Kwame R. Brown (D) for directing campaign funds through an intermediary to a firm controlled by his brother, in a race in which Mr. Brown was virtually unopposed; behind-the-scenes efforts by council member Michael A. Brown (I-At large) to legalize online gambling in the District, at a time when he was employed by a firm that represented online gambling companies; and an investigation into allegations that the campaign of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) made secret payments and promised a city job to a gadfly third candidate during Mr. Gray’s race in 2010 to unseat Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

These cases have shadowed Mr. Gray’s first year as mayor. His associates say he is frustrated that ethical issues, many of which predate his tenure as mayor, distract attention from his efforts to create jobs, improve schools and balance the budget. But his response to the ethical lapses — largely a defensive silence — has not helped.

The latest revelations about Mr. Graham and others involved in the lottery deal, as described by the inspector general, give the mayor an opportunity to assert leadership. A package of procurement reforms to take the politics out of city contracting, combined with a clear and forceful repudiation of self-dealing by elected officials, would be a useful place to start.

 
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