In April 2008, D.C. Council member Jim Graham placed a call to the District’s chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi.
Graham, according to a July 2008 deposition, told Gandhi that he had been offered what he called a “repulsive” deal by a political ally: If Graham (D-Ward 1) voted in support of the city’s lucrative lottery contract, which Gandhi’s office was handling, then the ally would be in line for a job.
More than four years later, the significance of that call and the events that ensued remain the subject of speculation and investigation. Was Graham’s call the act of a whistleblower concerned about backroom corruption? Or was it part of a plan to derail the city from awarding the contract to Graham’s political foe?
Documents, depositions, statements and interviews provide new details about Graham’s role in the lottery contract award — a raw display of power politics that has bedeviled the District for five years and is now the subject of a federal criminal investigation.
On the council dais last week, Graham passionately denied any wrongdoing and said he acted only to report potential wrongdoing he saw.
“If somebody thinks I broke a law, if someone believes I had an illegal financial interest, let them stand up and say it,” Graham said. “But no more of this besmirching of what is an honorable record.”
A key figure in Graham’s account of the lottery contract dealings rejects the lawmaker’s version of events, calling his allegations “fabricated” and part of an attempt to “deflect from him and spread the pain.”
“I thought Jim was my friend,” said the political ally, Dotti Love Wade. “I just feel so awful that would occur, that a friend would do that.”
The allegations in question date to an April 2008 council hearing, when Graham questioned Eric W. Payne, then Gandhi’s contracting director, about the lottery procurement. Graham asked about Warren C. Williams Jr., whose wife was a principal member of the group awarded the contract.
The council still had to vote on the award, and Graham had misgivings. Williams and Williams’s father had ties to a nightclub in Graham’s ward that had been shuttered after a series of violent incidents. At the hearing, Graham questioned the younger Williams’s lottery expertise. According to Graham’s deposition, he also quietly suspected that Williams had ties to his political opponents.
After the hearing, Graham directed Payne to contact Wade, a former D.C. lottery executive and Advisory Neighborhood Commission member in Graham’s ward. Wade, Graham said, had additional information that would shed light on why the Williamses were unfit to have the lottery contract. Payne made the call.
What ensued is the subject of multiple — sometime conflicting — accounts, given in depositions and records filed in Payne’s ongoing lawsuit against Gandhi and the city for wrongful termination.
According to Graham, Wade came to his office shortly afterward and told him that representatives from the winning lottery team were waiting at the J.W. Marriott hotel across from his office in the John A. Wilson Building.
Wade said, according to Graham’s comments last week: “They are prepared to come to your office now, and in exchange for you stopping your opposition to the lottery contract, they may be able to work something out for employment for me.”
Graham said he rejected the entreaty: “I looked at her, and I said, ‘Are you out of your mind? Absolutely not. I’m not going to do that.’ ” He gave a similar account in his deposition.
Concerned that Payne had arranged the offer, Graham said, he called Gandhi. Nothing immediately happened. But in June, Gandhi’s top lawyer ordered the agency’s investigator to look into Graham’s claims, treating the council member like any other confidential whistleblower.
Investigator Robert G. Andary interviewed the people involved and found no evidence that Payne had done anything improper.
In 2008 interviews and in recent comments to The Washington Post, Payne and Wade said their telephone conversation after the hearing was innocuous.
Payne said he remains “baffled” as to why Graham wanted him to speak to Wade. “She had nothing negative to say about the Williamses or their ability to perform the contract at issue,” he said.
Wade, who last worked for the D.C. Lottery in 1994, said, “I told him, ‘I don’t know anything about this stuff.’ ” She recalled discussing Warren Williams Sr., whose company handled scratch-off tickets during her time at the D.C. Lottery.
Wade acknowledged in documents and to The Post having talks with Williams Jr. and other members of his bidding group about potentially taking a job as a “technical consultant” with their company should their contract win approval. She also acknowledged visiting Graham to check on the status of the contract. But she denied trying to win his support.
“I’m floored by this statement, what you just told me,” she said after being read Graham’s description of the meeting from a July deposition in the Payne case, echoing his comments from the dais last week. “I’m absolutely floored, because there’s no truth to it.”
A. Scott Bolden, an attorney for Williams Jr. and his wife, said neither person authorized Wade to seek Graham’s support in return for a job offer, nor do they believe she did so.
While Andary concluded there was no evidence to substantiate Wade’s alleged quid pro quo, or Payne’s role in it, he determined that Graham may have pursued a “separate political agenda” by offering to Williams Jr. and his wife, in a May 29, 2008, meeting, to support her lottery bid in return for him withdrawing from a land deal with Metro. At the time, Graham was a member of Metro’s Board of Directors.
An initial report drafted by Andary referenced “inappropriate actions” by Graham related to the lottery-for-land trade. In a February deposition in the Payne case, Andary referred to it as a “sordid quid pro quo.”
But Andary’s final report did not include the “inappropriate” characterization. He said in the deposition he did not know who made the change. On Dec. 13, Gandhi declined to answer the council’s questions about the matter, citing the pending litigation.
The report found “no clear violation of any criminal statute,” and the city’s inspector general “did not find sufficient evidence to support or conclude that [Graham] had acted improperly” in a January report.
An investigation commissioned by the Metro board concluded that Graham “appear[ed] to barter” the lottery contract and Metro land deal, thus breaking internal conflict-of-interest rules, but made no criminal referral. Graham has denied proposing any quid pro quo.
The matter is now before the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, which can recommend sanctions to the council or refer potential criminal violations for further investigation.
Graham said he was disappointed that Andary did not probe deeper into his allegations of potential corruption within the Williams lottery group. “He goes just so far and then he stops,” Graham said of Andary’s report.
In his deposition, Andary said he’d become “a little disgusted with Graham” during his probe. “I didn’t want to continue to do something based on his political agenda, which I thought is why I ended up doing it,” he said.
Wade told The Post that she had no idea why Graham continued to maintain a friendship and political relationship with her if he believed she had acted improperly, as he suggested in his July 2008 deposition.
Months after Graham said that Wade offered him the vote-for-job deal — an encounter he would call “very repulsive” in his July deposition — she entered the race for Ward 1’s seat on the nonpartisan State Board of Education. With Graham’s endorsement and fundraising help, Wade won the race.
In an interview, Graham declined to discuss why he supported Wade’s bid for public office despite his misgivings about her alleged conduct.
“I did everything I should have done,” he said, referring to his phone call to Gandhi.