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D.C. Council member proposed bill that would have helped firm that offered his son an internship

Emails from D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and staff about an internship are raising questions about ethics.
Emails from D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and staff about an internship are raising questions about ethics. (Jahi Chikwendiu)

D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) proposed legislation that would have benefited an outdoor advertising company after the firm offered a paid summer internship to his son, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

Communications between Evans, a 27-year veteran of the D.C. Council, and Digi Outdoor Media, took place in 2016 and are detailed in 41 pages of emails between the lawmaker’s office and the company, which were obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request and first reported by District Dig.

The company offered to hire Evans’s son, then 19, shortly before Digi’s founder ran into trouble with city regulators, who found his company’s LED-illuminated signs downtown were illegally constructed.

The younger Evans ultimately didn’t take the internship. But months later, his father proposed a bill to legalize the type of signs Digi wanted to install. Evans withdrew the legislation because of a lack of support.

D.C. ethics laws prohibit the use of public office for private gain, giving preferential treatment or actions that create the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The first mention of the internship in emails between Evans and Digi Outdoor founder Don MacCord came on March 1, 2016.

“Jack remember we would love to have your son as [an] intern this year with Digi,” MacCord wrote in an email to Evans and his chief of staff, Schannette Grant, adding that his son would be “a great addition to the team.”

Two months later, MacCord reminded the council member that his company had set aside a spot for his son on its creative and marketing team.

“My son . . . is interested in the summer intern job,” Evans replied the next morning. The son of the council member met with MacCord in early June to discuss the job — a meeting arranged by Evans’s chief of staff.

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Afterward, MacCord asked Evans for his son’s email and address to send him an offer letter for the $20-an-hour marketing internship starting June 27. The company emailed the offer letter on June 17 and forwarded it to the council member and his chief of staff.

While MacCord was communicating with Evans about that job, property owners in the District working with his company were securing city permits for brackets for large LED outdoor signs.

Historical preservationists and community groups opposed the signs and city officials said the permits didn’t cover such installations.

The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs revoked the permits and issued stop-work orders in July and August 2016. The attorney general’s office in late August sued the property owners and Digi Media Communications.

At the D.C. Council’s Dec. 6, 2016, meeting, Evans filed a notice for emergency legislation to legalize the type of installations made by Digi Outdoor Media, a bill he later withdrew.

In an interview, Evans said the offer of a summer internship had no bearing on his decision to introduce the legislation.

“There’s no connection between any of this stuff,” he said. “There was no summer internship . . . and no legislation. My puzzlement is there’s no real story other than none of this happened.”

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Evans said he could not remember why he proposed the legislation in the first place. “We do hundreds of pieces of legislation down here,” he said.

Evans supported other companies that wanted to install large electronic billboards near Nationals Park , over the objection of neighborhood activists.

MacCord, who resigned last year, referred questions to a spokeswoman for Digi Media Communications, who declined to comment.

The Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, which has the power to investigate council members for ethical transgressions, declined to comment on the events or say whether the agency would investigate.

Government ethics experts say the internship offer raises eyebrows.

“There was at least an implicit agreement for a paid internship and Jack Evans had prepared emergency legislation to introduce to benefit the same company,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the good government advocacy group Public Citizen. “That is too close of a correlation to just dismiss as incidental.”

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Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University who previously served as an ethics lawyer for D.C. government, called it “swampy behavior.”

“His son was offered an internship by an entity that had a significant matter before the council,” she said. “Just like they are not supposed to offer a council member a vacation or another kind of gift, you can see an offer of a job to the son could be a way to curry favor with the council member in a way that has nothing to do with the public ­interest.”

Jessica Levinson, an ethics expert at the Loyola Law School at Los Angeles, said it’s understandable that a father would want to help his son but that Evans should have disclosed the potential conflict of interest.

“It’s very easy to draw the line between a business offers to help out his son and he shepherds legislation to help the business,” Levinson said. “It feeds into our endless perception that elected officials are serving themselves and their family and not us. It’s not necessarily what happened here. It could be totally nefarious, or completely innocuous.”

Evans, who has been reelected seven times, said people with business before the council routinely try to build relationships with him but he remains focused on residents.

“My record speaks for itself that I represented my constituents very well,” he said. “That’s what happens when you are an elected official: You get contacted by people all the time.”