Fenty Zoning Nominee's Ethics, Style at Issue

By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 23, 2007

A mayoral nominee to the D.C. Zoning Commission came under attack in the D.C. Council chamber yesterday as leaders of several civic organizations questioned the personality and ethics of Geoffrey H. Griffis.

Griffis is the choice of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to serve on the five-member commission, which sets land-use policy in the city. The council hearing on the nomination attracted more than 40 critics and supporters, who passionately testified about Griffis, a Columbia Heights architect who has been chairman of the city's Board of Zoning Adjustment since 2001.

Critics brought up conflict-of-interest allegations made against Griffis in 2004, when the adjustment board approved an expansion of the National Child Research Center, an elite nursery school in Northwest Washington.

After the vote, neighbors opposed to the project hired a private detective to look into Griffis's personal relationship with a woman who had been a trustee of the school when its expansion request came before the board.

Griffis said yesterday that the relationship did not influence his vote, that it began after the board had approved the expansion and that the woman had stepped down as a trustee.

Opponents also described Griffis as overly pro-development. But supporters, including many Ward 1 residents and several developers, praised him as a fair, deliberate and conscientious arbiter of what are often contentious issues.

They said they were puzzled by descriptions of Griffis as "insulting," "sarcastic" and "dismissive" in official proceedings. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), an outspoken critic of Griffis's, is rallying council votes against the nomination.

Griffis defended his record as chairman. "With over 1,000 cases processed since I have been chair, 30 times our decisions have been appealed to the D.C. courts," he said. "We have yet to be overturned."

As for Fenty, "the mayor stands by his decision to nominate Geoffrey Griffis and respects the council's approval and decision process," mayoral spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said.

Griffis is the latest of several Fenty nominees to city boards and commissions who have faced tough questions from the council.

The mayor withdrew the nomination of Herb Scott to the D.C. Board of Education after Scott was asked at a hearing about an outstanding tax liability. And Ben Soto, a Fenty nominee to the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, told council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) that he would recuse himself from issues involving the Washington Nationals after questions arose about a financial connection he had to the team.

With Griffis as chairman in April 2004, the zoning adjustment board voted for the nursery school's request to expand its campus in Cleveland Park, with Griffis siding with the majority. The vote reversed a previous decision.

Suspicious of the motivation, neighbors hired a private detective to look into Griffis's personal life. The investigation produced photos that neighbors presented as evidence of a romantic relationship between Griffis and Claire Bloch, who had been a trustee of the school at the time of the expansion request.

Bloch, a Cleveland Park resident who was a manager of Mary M. Cheh's successful campaign for the Ward 3 D.C. Council seat last year, was no longer a trustee when the vote occurred, he said. She sat next to Griffis during yesterday's hearing.

The photos, presented to the adjustment board by neighbors and discussed at a public hearing, showed the two socializing and kissing in public.

Although Griffis said his vote on the expansion had not been influenced by personal relationships, he recused himself from further votes on the issue.

"No reasonable person can maintain that a judge's impartiality is not suspect when he is dating a trustee in a case that is before him," said Bruce Beckner, a Cleveland Park resident who opposed the expansion and testified yesterday.

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