The chair of the D.C. Council said member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) acted inappropriately when he emailed business proposals to potential employers and offered them his influence and connections as an elected official.
“I believe our code of conduct provides that a member should not use council resources for personal purposes, for personal gain,” Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said at a Monday news conference. “On the face of it, that appears to be exactly what happened.”
Evans faces growing scrutiny after The Washington Post reported last week that he sent solicitations on his government email to law firms that lobby the D.C. government, offering his contacts and sway amassed as the council’s longest serving lawmaker and as chair of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
The WMATA board of directors directed its ethics officer on Monday to investigate Evans. The review was initiated by Clarence Crawford, Maryland’s representative and the board’s first vice chair, and did not require a vote, WMATA spokesman Dan Stessel said.
Mendelson said that the D.C. Council would also respond in some way but that he wanted to first consult with Evans and other council members, as well as the council’s lawyer, with whom he met Monday.
The Post reported last week that a federal grand jury has also been investigating Evans and issued a subpoena to D.C. officials for documents related to legislation that Evans promoted in 2016 that would have benefited a digital sign company. On Monday, the Washington City Paper said “three or four” of Evans’s private clients also received subpoenas.
Evans, through a spokesman, declined to comment Monday. His lawyer, Mark H. Tuohey, did not return multiple messages. Tuohey told the City Paper that Evans made a mistake by using his council email for the solicitations but that “any work that Jack performed was permitted by council rules.”
The D.C. Council has a variety of ways to punish one of its own, including a vote of reprimand or censure, forming a special committee to investigate a lawmaker, and removal of committee assignments.
“I don’t want to speculate what the response would be at this point, but I do believe the council does have to, depending on the degree, have to respond,” Mendelson said Monday.
Five members of the D.C. Council can vote to create a special committee to investigate a lawmaker, a step suggested in a letter to Mendelson by D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large). By late Monday afternoon, Grosso was joined in that effort by Council members Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1).
“As the Chairman of the Council of the District of Columbia, you have the authority and responsibility to ensure that the integrity of the body is maintained, and that those who engage in ethically suspect behavior are fairly investigated and held accountable,” the letter said. “Failure to uphold this responsibility reflects poorly on all who serve the people of the District of Columbia in this body. It also diminishes confidence in our government as a whole.”
Several progressive groups and 11 elected neighborhood commissioners want Mendelson to strip Evans of his chairmanship of the Committee on Finance and Revenue.
“We are appalled by Council member Evans’ blatant unethical and corrupt actions,” the neighborhood commissioners wrote in a letter to Mendelson. “The council has a past practice of removing Committee Chairs or taking other action for similar behavior, and we expect consistent treatment for such egregious conduct.”
The grand jury subpoena to the D.C. city administrator’s office, issued in September, sought documents relating to legislation Evans promoted in 2016 that would have benefited a digital-sign company after an executive sent Evans money and stock and offered his son a summer internship. Evans has said that he returned the money and stock and that his son did not take the internship.
The D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability opened an investigation into that matter early last year, then suspended it because of a law enforcement probe.
Business proposals obtained by The Post show how Evans has repeatedly mixed his public service and his private business. In one 2018 email sent to Nelson Mullins, a law firm that had lobbied his office on behalf of a client just months before, Evans said that as a lawmaker and WMATA chairman, he could engage in “cross-marketing my relationships and influence to Nelson Mullins clients.”
The D.C. Council was rocked by a series of scandals earlier in the decade, when three lawmakers were convicted of federal crimes — two of the cases involved lawmakers accused of exploiting their public offices for personal grain. Most of the members were silent Monday on whether to investigate Evans.
Mendelson, who became chairman after his predecessor was charged with bank fraud, said he was concerned but wanted more information.
“As I’ve said for a long time, I think the integrity of the council . . . is a delicate thing and that it always has to be watched carefully,” Mendelson said, later adding, “Oftentimes there’s more than one side to a controversy . . . ”
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who stressed ethics in her 2014 campaign, said Evans told her that he would answer questions about the controversy surrounding him. Bowser, who is close to Evans, declined on Monday to discuss his conduct.
“I think my focus would be on the process playing out, and allowing the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability to look at our code of ethics, the government, we’re all held to that code of ethics, and determine if there were any lines crossed,” Bowser told reporters during a news conference.
Some government reform advocates said Evans clearly crossed the line.
Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a nonpartisan organization that lobbies for ethical government, called Evans’s solicitations “breathtaking” and “an extremely egregious example of selling access to our government for private gain.”
Holman noted that the District’s ethics code states explicitly that public officials “may not knowingly use the prestige of office or public position for that employee’s private gain or that of another.”
Holman said Evans’s actions demonstrate the need for a ban or tighter restrictions on outside employment by council members.
Of the 13 council members, only one other — Ward 3 Democrat Mary M. Cheh — claims significant outside income on financial disclosure firms. Cheh is a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. As a D.C. Council member, Evans earns $140,161 annually.
Mendelson was cool to the idea of banning outside employment Monday, saying that the current system has worked and that restricting private work might require an act of Congress.
Evans, who is up for reelection in 2020, is facing some blowback in his ward.
William K. Smith, chairman of an Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Ward 2, said he was troubled by Evans’s memos and would be discussing the matter with other commissioners.
“I think Jack has a lot of great achievements to his record, but you look at that memo and I think it really blurs and mars it,” Smith said. “There is an implied connection between his role as a lawyer for the firm and his role as a council member that is troubling and cynical.”
John Fanning, another neighborhood commissioner who once ran against Evans, planned to circulate a petition urging Evans to reveal his clients.
“Whose business is he doing?” Fanning asked. “His own or the business of the residents of the District of Columbia?”