As the D.C. Council enacted reforms to reduce public corruption, federal prosecutors were probing whether its longest-serving lawmaker, Council member Jack Evans, used his office for private gain.
That split-screen moment from a few months ago is evidence that even as the city’s political culture has evolved since the scandal-tainted reign of Mayor Marion Barry, the District can still further tighten its ethics rules.
Civic groups chided the council as being too lenient when it reprimanded Evans (D-Ward 2) last Tuesday rather than strip him of powerful committee posts.
“They have an ethical scandal staring them in the face and they need to do a lot more to show they take it seriously,” said Zach Weinstein, a community organizer with Jews United for Justice, a social advocacy group. “They are broadcasting that selling your public office for private gain is not that big a deal and you can get a slap on the wrist.”
By his own admission, Evans violated the council’s code of conduct when he repeatedly used his government email account to offer potential clients the benefit of his political connections and the influence he amassed over three decades as a city lawmaker and as chairman of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
In September, a federal grand jury subpoenaed records from the city administrator concerning Evans to determine whether he had used his council office to improperly help a digital-sign company. Earlier this month, prosecutors subpoenaed records from the office of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the 13-member council pertaining to Evans and a number of other businesses and entities, suggesting that the probe had widened.
A day after Evans was reprimanded, another council member, Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) was fined $4,000 for misusing government resources to influence a state Board of Elections political campaign. It was his second violation of campaign law in four years in office.
Bryan Weaver, an activist who has pushed for campaign-finance reforms, said Evans’s actions — and the council’s response — evoke the worst aspects of the District’s long history of official misconduct, one that has triggered periodic crises engulfing mayors, council members, government appointees and employees.
“Despite all the trumpeted changes to ethics in D.C., the reality is lobbyists can still serve as council members without real penalty,” Weaver said of Evans. “The danger is that the lure of private profit will always trump the commitment to public service.”
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), in a statement before the unanimous vote to reprimand Evans, said the rebuke would “make clear to the public that Mr. Evans’s actions do not reflect the council’s values.” He also said that the council could take additional action against Evans, depending on the outcome of the federal inquiry.
At the same time, council members acknowledged that further reforms may be needed. For instance, lawmakers are paid about $140,000 a year but are permitted to hold outside jobs, with the proviso that they recuse themselves from official action if their involvement presents a conflict of interest concerning their private employment.
Only two of the 13 council members reported significant outside income in their most recent required disclosures — Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), a law professor at George Washington University; and Evans, who operates his own consulting firm.
But Evans is not required to disclose his clients and has refused to do so. He privately confirmed to his council colleagues that at least one of his clients had received a federal subpoena in the ongoing federal probe, according to two people present who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Another area flagged by critics as ripe for abuse is the constituent services fund, a largely unregulated pool of money that council members raise from private donors and is meant to be used to help constituents in need.
Five council members — all elected in recent years — do not maintain constituent services funds, saying they do not think lawmakers should accept money from donors who may be trying to curry their favor.
“I think they’re political slush funds, and I don’t think they instill confidence,” said council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), a leading advocate of campaign-finance reform who has failed to get the support necessary to end the practice.
While most members tap their funds to help constituents with emergencies such as an overdue rent payment or funeral costs, Evans over the years has used money from his fund to purchase hundreds of thousands of dollars in tickets to professional sporting events.
“There has been a steady stream marching us toward open government and better government,” said council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1). “But there’s more to do, because we keep ending up in this place.”
In 2014, Nadeau defeated Jim Graham, a 16-year incumbent who had been the target of an investigation for allegedly influencing a public land deal on behalf of a donor. Nadeau was part of a wave of newcomers — among them Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), David Grosso (D-At Large), and Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) — who replaced lawmakers tarnished by scandal or whose ethics were questioned.
Bowser captured the mayoralty in 2014 after defeating then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray, whose tenure was also clouded by a federal investigation into campaign finance violations. While Gray was never charged, guilty pleas were entered by six of his associates, including Jeffery Thompson, a city contractor who was accused of masterminding a scheme to funnel $653,000 in illegal donations into Gray’s 2010 campaign.
In her first State of the District speech after becoming mayor, Bowser said: “Accountability is embedded in everything this administration does. Corruption at any level in our city is unacceptable.”
By the end of the year, she was fending off criticism for traveling to China with donors who took advantage of a loophole to pump large contributions into a political action committee managed by her campaign operatives. The PAC was soon shut down.
Two years later, a council investigation concluded that a senior mayoral adviser had sought to steer a contract to Fort Myer Construction, a top donor to Bowser’s campaign.
Ron Lester, a pollster who has advised Barry and Gray, said that the District’s electorate is “past the point” of being “tolerant of corruption at all.”
“Voters are very impatient out here now; they’re just not having it,” Lester said. “It’s a political environment where you have to be very careful.”
At the start of Barry’s reign more than 40 years ago, the District’s politics and demographics were far different from now, with a population that was majority black and more of its residents poor and in the working class.
Barry created opportunities for African American professionals through government contracting and development deals while helping generations of low-income residents through a summer jobs program for youngsters.
He had forged enough goodwill that he was reelected mayor and later reelected to the council despite corruption scandals involving his top deputies, as well his own arrest by the FBI for possession of crack. “He did so much to empower the black community that voters were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt,” Lester said. “It was a different time and a different electorate.”
In 1994, District voters approved a ballot initiative to limit lawmakers to two consecutive terms. Seven years later, after Anthony A. Williams succeeded Barry as mayor, Evans was among the council members who voted to overturn the restriction.
By then, Williams had helped solve a fiscal crisis, raised hiring standards in the city government and fostered public confidence that continued to grow when Adrian M. Fenty took office as mayor in 2007.
But voters rejected Fenty after one term, in part because of a perception of cronyism resulting from his administration’s granting of lucrative contracts to his network of friends. Gray, his successor, found himself under federal investigation almost as soon as he took office. The scandal surrounding the financing of his campaign unfolded at a time when a trio of council members were forced to resign after separate incidents of criminal misconduct.
All at once, the District government was awash in scandal.
“It broke the public trust, and that gave the opportunity for voters to examine what’s broken with our system,” Allen said.
It was after Gray became mayor that a push for campaign-finance and ethics reform began in earnest, though it was not altogether successful.
While the council created an independent ethics panel, a coalition of activists — a group that included Allen and Weaver — campaigned unsuccessfully to place on the ballot a referendum on banning corporate contributions.
Seven years later, Allen is the lawmaker who spearheaded the most recent reform efforts, which include barring contributions from city contractors or those seeking government contracts worth more than $250,000.
“It’s not a fringe group talking about these things anymore,” Weaver said. “It’s the new generation of the council.”
But Evans’s scandal demonstrates that “you can’t start celebrating a marathon victory halfway through the race,” he said.