D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson asked the D.C. Council on Thursday to reprimand Council member Jim Graham, who the city ethics board suggested violated city ethics rules in 2008.
But Graham, a four-term Ward-1 Democrat, fought back, filing a lawsuit against the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability. Earlier this month, the board concluded he had improperly intervened in a contract dispute.
Mendelson also plans to strip Graham of his power to oversee liquor licenses and alcohol laws, an assignment Graham has long cherished, when the council meets on Monday. If members vote for a reprimand, Graham would become only the second D.C. Council member since home rule to face a public rebuke from colleagues, though his punishment would stop short of a formal censure.
“His conduct adversely harmed the public’s confidence of the District government,” Mendelson said a news conference in a hallway near his office in the John A. Wilson Building.
As Mendelson spoke, Graham appeared in the hallway, looking sternly at Mendelson as television crews rushed in. He then held his own news conference and announced he is challenging both the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability as well as Mendelson’s effort to reprimand him.
“No crime committed. No law broken. No financial interests,” Graham said. “The question is what is right with regards to fairness and justice.”
Earlier Thursday, Graham’s attorneys went to Superior Court seeking a temporary injunction blocking the Feb. 6 ethics board opinion. That opinion found “substantial” evidence that Graham broke city rules by intervening with a local businessman in a Metro land deal.
The board did not sanction Graham, saying it could not levy penalties because there was no provision for such penalties for council members in place at the time of Graham’s conduct. But Graham argues in his suit that he’s being subjected to public punishment without being given an opportunity to adequately defend himself.
“There can be no question that Mr. Graham was denied even the most minimum, due process protections in this matter,” states Graham’s lawsuit, which seeks to put the ethics board’s finding on hold. “Mr. Graham has suffered severe reputational harm as a result, including impending irreparable harm to his 15-year career as a sitting member of the D.C. Council.”
A hearing has been scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday in Superior Court.
Darrin Sobin, executive director of the ethics board, said the agency’s attorneys “will most certainly defend” its probe of Graham.
“The board stands by its decision,” Sobin said, declining to comment further.
During the past three years, there have been three investigations into Graham’s conduct when he served as the council’s representative on the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority board. Graham is alleged to have proposed that businessman Warren Williams Jr. drop out of a Metro land deal in return for Graham’s support on the council for his lottery contract bid.
In October, a law firm hired by the Metro board to investigate the matter concluded that Graham violated the agency’s ethics policies by improperly intermingling his council and board responsibilities. But a separate investigation by the Office of the Inspector General into the lottery contract did not “find sufficient evidence” that Graham “acted improperly.”
On Thursday, Graham referred to his actions as “horse trading,” which he said has been a staple of the legislative process for centuries.
“The fact of the matter is suggesting one thing for another is the stock and trade of a lot of legislative actions,” said Graham, who is up for reelection next year.
But Mendelson said the council needs “to make a statement” that it won’t tolerate any behavior that shines an unfavorable light on the body. Over the past week, Mendelson has polled members to see how aggressive a statement they would be willing to make.
Under council rules, a council investigation would be required before the body could vote on a formal censure as a “penalty for wrongdoing.”
Instead, Mendelson is recommending a reprimand — outlined in council rules as “not punishment or discipline” — that does not require the council to conduct its own investigation into the matter.
Graham said he will ask his colleagues to begin censure proceedings, instead of reprimanding him, so he has an opportunity to defend himself as part of the council investigation.
“I’m simply saying, ‘Give me a hearing,’ so I can be heard,” Graham said.
In 2010, Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) was censured after he was accused of steering city grant money to friends and supporters, including a former girlfriend.
Now Barry is aligning with Graham to demand that Graham be given an opportunity to defend himself before the body.
“I’ve fought all of my life against injustices, and this is unjust,” Barry said.
But a majority of members appear willing to move forward with Monday’s planned vote.
“There have been three investigations, and this has been going on for a couple of years,” Mendelson said. “We don’t need another investigation, and we don’t need to prolong this.”