Evans, the city’s longest-serving lawmaker, is the focus of an investigation by a federal grand jury, which two months ago subpoenaed records from the D.C. government related to Evans and his constellation of private legal and consulting clients.
Based on the subpoenas, a legal memo to the D.C. Council and interviews, The Washington Post has identified some of the businesses that have had contracts with Evans, a Ward 2 Democrat and lawyer. Evans has acknowledged he created NSE Consulting, which he registered in 2016 at his Georgetown home.
At least three of these businesses have had interests before the D.C. government:
• Willco, a development and investment firm and NSE client, wanted to build a film production complex in the District, a project that could have benefited from legislation Evans introduced to support tax breaks to film production facilities.
• EastBanc, another development firm, was awarded the right to develop three publicly owned West End parcels in Evans’s ward. In exchange, it agreed to build a new library, fire station and affordable housing alongside a high-end condominium building. It would also include an eight-court indoor squash club and cafe affiliated with EastBanc that was also an NSE client. Evans was a pivotal player in the deal, whose critics called it a giveaway to the developer.
• And in the case of Colonial Parking, whose parent company was another NSE client, Evans used his role as chairman of the council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue to try to insert language in the city budget promoting federal tax incentives Colonial wanted Congress to reauthorize.
Evans declined to be interviewed for this story but has denied wrongdoing, apologized for mistakes, and pledged in April to stop all his outside income and consulting work.
The federal investigation of Evans appears to have been sparked last year by his dealings with a digital sign company, Digi Outdoor Media. In 2016, Digi’s president gave NSE $50,000 and 200,000 shares of Digi stock. In response to inquiries last year from The Post, Evans said he’d returned the money and stock and put plans for a business relationship with Digi on hold before promoting legislation that would have benefited the sign company.
In March, The Post reported that Evans used his government email account to seek private employment with law firms that lobby the city government, touting his influence and connections as a council member and chairman of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. The council later reprimanded him and he was stripped of some responsibilities , but he retained his powerful perch as chair of the Committee on Finance and Revenue.
In subpoenas issued in March to the council and the office of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), federal prosecutors sought information about a range of people and businesses, including Willco, EastBanc and Colonial Parking, suggesting the probe had expanded beyond Digi Outdoor Media.
A Willco lawyer said the company has been subpoenaed and is cooperating with the investigation, but otherwise declined to comment. EastBanc officials also declined to comment. A lawyer for Forge, the parent of Colonial Parking, said that company’s contract with NSE prohibited Evans from taking actions as a council member on its behalf.
The city’s ethics rules require lawmakers to disclose outside income they earn each year and to notify the council chairman of any conflicts of interest when it comes to action on particular legislation. But they do not have to identify clients, unless those clients have a contract with the District or stand to gain from pending legislation that calendar year.
Evans reported that his income from NSE during 2017 and part of 2018 was between $150,000 and $350,000.
Evans did not disclose private business relationships with NSE clients in his public filings or comments.
During a closed portion of a recent council meeting, Evans revealed to his fellow lawmakers that his clients included Willco, EastBanc affiliate Squash on Fire and Colonial’s parent company, according to officials present.
'With you a hundred percent'
In 2001, about 10 years after he was elected to the council, Evans went to work at the powerhouse law and lobbying firm Patton Boggs. In 2014, the firm merged with Squire Sanders and underwent a shake-up. Evans soon left and sought work elsewhere.
“I am looking to continue my law practice while continuing to serve on the City Council,” Evans wrote to other firms, according to emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“While I would not be able to directly lobby the District government, I could certainly use my knowledge of local government to strategize with someone looking to do business locally,” he wrote.
In late 2015, Evans started at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, where he would work for two years. In his first month on the job, Evans was the lead signatory on a letter from seven D.C. Council members that urged the D.C. Public Service Commission to approve a controversial merger between Exelon and Pepco, which it eventually did. Evans did not disclose in the letter that he was employed by Manatt, which was registered as Exelon’s lobbyist.
In July 2016, while still at Manatt, Evans created NSE Consulting and began negotiating contracts with prospective clients.
In early 2017, Willco hired Manatt to lobby for “a film, television and digital production facility with a residential component” on District-owned property, according to required disclosures filed by Willco, which identified Manatt partner John Ray and adviser Tina Ang as the lobbyists.
It is not publicly known when Willco hired NSE. But Evans did not disclose a business relationship with the company when its chairman, Richard Cohen, appeared before Evans’s committee in May 2017.
Cohen came before lawmakers to testify in support of Evans’s bill, the “Relieve High Unemployment Tax Incentives Act,” which would authorize the mayor to pursue tax breaks for developers who invested at least $50 million in high-unemployment areas. The bill specified one type of development that could qualify for additional tax breaks: “a qualified film, television and digital media production facility” — just the kind of project Willco wanted to build.
“Washington D.C. could be a much more popular city for filming TV shows like House of Cards if the companies could do production and editing in Washington, D.C., as opposed to taking those jobs to Baltimore and other cities,” Cohen told the committee. Two months earlier, Cohen, his wife and four others associated with Willco donated $500 each to Evans’s constituent services fund.
Evans pledged his support at the hearing. “This bill I think is really important, not only for jobs and economic development, but for the film industry too, which has been a passion of mine forever,” he said. “I’m with you a hundred percent.”
In November 2017, the Finance and Revenue Committee again discussed Evans’s tax incentives bill. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) challenged the legislation, noting the mayor already had the power to propose tax breaks. “So my question is, what does this bill really do?” she asked.
Evans defended his bill, saying it “really brings focus” to addressing unemployment.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, as you know, and I’ve been largely successful, coming up with very different ways of approaches to get things done,” Evans said, appearing frustrated. “It gets the mayor involved in doing things that might just work.”
If he sounded “surly” about Silverman’s objections, he added, “it’s because I feel that way.”
During late 2017 and early 2018 votes, the council approved the legislation, with Silverman casting the only vote against. Willco has not moved forward with its project.
Mark Tuohey, an attorney for Evans, said in an email that Evans supported unsuccessful legislation in 2013 that would have provided tax breaks for film producers, and that his 2017 bill “had no relationship to Councilmember Evans’s consulting work with NSE.”
Squash on Fire
As Evans created NSE in 2016, one of his ward’s most prominent development firms, EastBanc, was wrapping up a project in which he played a pivotal role.
A decade earlier, the council had awarded a sole-source public-private partnership to EastBanc, at Evans’s urging. The deal gave three pieces of public land to EastBanc. In exchange, the developer would build a new public library topped by luxury condos and rental apartments and another building nearby to house a new fire station, about 50 units of affordable housing, and an indoor squash facility and cafe called Squash on Fire.
At that 2007 council meeting, Evans said he’d worked for years to see development come to the site. But the measure sparked a backlash from critics, who decried the lack of competitive bidding and the community’s exclusion from the process.
The outcry prompted the council to reconsider the deal, and in 2009 the District opened it to competitive bidding. The District again selected EastBanc, over one other bidder. In 2010, Evans introduced a bill that carried out terms of the $150 million project.
The project was delayed by a lawsuit by activists who said it was a public land giveaway.
After the lawsuit’s defeat, at a 2014 groundbreaking, Evans and EastBanc’s president, Anthony Lanier, posed for photos with hard hats and shovels. “After unfortunate delays, we’re finally on the way to two great new facilities for our residents,” Evans’s council newsletter said.
Lanier declined to comment for this story. “I am not going to get involved in this, because I really feel that I’m ancillary to the issue,” he said.
The development needed legislative help as late as December 2016, when the council, including Evans, voted to clarify how a fund for maintaining the library and fire station could be used.
At the library’s opening in December 2017, Bowser cut the ceremonial ribbon next to Evans and Lanier, who thanked those who backed him despite opposition.
It wasn’t the only EastBanc project Evans had helped.
During 2015 and 2016, Evans introduced measures exempting EastBanc from legal restrictions as it redeveloped a gas station. The last came in October 2016, but turned out to be unnecessary and was withdrawn. The gas station redevelopment is still underway.
Tuohey, the attorney for Evans, said in an email that EastBanc was “not an NSE client when the West End Library and gas station zoning issues were resolved.” He declined to say when the company hired Evans’s firm or answer other questions.
A 'must' budget priority
In a business proposal to a lobbying firm in early 2018, Evans touted his previous work for clients, which included that he “Represented a DC company for help in lobbying Congress to include DC in the Enterprise Zone legislation.”
Evans didn’t name the client, but he appears to have been referring to Forge, the parent of Colonial Parking, one of the largest operators of parking facilities in the Washington region. Records show that Evans tried, unsuccessfully, to add language to the city budget that would have shown local support for federal legislation sought by Forge.
Enterprise zones, sometimes called empowerment zones, are designed to attract investment in economically distressed areas. The federal program expired in the District in 2011.
In 2014, Russell “Rusty” Lindner, the chairman of Forge, met with Evans and two other Squire Patton Boggs lawyers, according to emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and first reported by Jeffrey Anderson of the website District Dig. One of the lawyers soon registered to lobby Congress for empowerment zones on behalf of Forge.
The next year, Evans left Squire Patton Boggs and began working at Manatt. Months later, Forge also migrated to Manatt, which became its lobbyist on empowerment zones.
In 2017, when D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) introduced a bill in the U.S. House to revive empowerment zones in the District, Evans received a copy, emails show. He quickly forwarded it to Lindner. Months later, his legislative aide highlighted council support for Norton’s bill as a “must,” emails show.
During a May 2018 meeting of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, Evans circulated its budget priorities, which included a measure that he wanted inserted into the budget that voiced support for empowerment zones.
A lawyer for Forge says the company never asked Evans to take action as a D.C. lawmaker on its behalf.
“To be sure, The Forge Company never instructed any Member of the Council of the District of Columbia to pursue a local resolution to this Federal issue,” the company’s general counsel, Kevin B. Byrd, said in statement.
What’s more, the company’s contract with NSE “included — at Forge’s request — a provision requiring recusal and immediate notification to Forge on any matter that might create a conflict of interest or violate applicable District government ethics rules and regulations, as it relates to Mr. Evans,” Byrd said.
Tuohey, Evans’s attorney, said Evans flagged the empowerment zones as “a symbolic, not substantive, recommendation” because of “numerous business entities and their employees who would benefit from the city-wide impact.”
In the end, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) did not incorporate the language into the District’s fiscal 2019 budget, and Norton’s bill didn’t move forward.
Other legislation favored by Lindner had fared better. In 2015, Evans introduced a bill to exempt the University of Georgia Foundation, of which Lindner is a volunteer trustee, from taxes on a property it owned in the District. The bill could also benefit other similar foundations.
Lindner connected Evans’s office with the foundation’s director and received updates from Evans’s staff on the bill’s progress, emails show. When the District’s chief financial officer issued a statement saying funds were “not sufficient” for the bill, which would cost nearly $100,000 per year, Evans repurposed other public money to cover the foundation’s tax bill, emails show. The Committee on Finance and Revenue, which he chaired, included the allocation in its budget recommendations.
In May 2016, an Evans aide emailed Lindner and the foundation’s director that the budget — the bill’s “final hurdle” — was set to pass. Lindner replied with his thanks. “So what have you done for us lately?.....,” he joked.
A year and a half later, when Evans listed in his business proposal clients that he could help attract, Lindner was at the top.
Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.