The District’s elected officials have a fresh reason to think twice before picking up the phone on behalf of their constituents after the city’s ethics czar this week issued new guidance on the proper exertion of political influence.
The advisory opinion from Darrin P. Sobin, director of government ethics for the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, offers unprecedented detail on what it means to be an upstanding elected official in a city that has undergone a spate of significant ethical strife.
Since January 2012, two D.C. Council members have resigned their offices before admitting to federal felonies. A former council member pleaded guilty in June to a bribery charge. Three sitting council members have been admonished to varying degrees in the nine months since the ethics board was established, and board investigators have recently asked questions about at least two other matters involving sitting members.
The opinion comes as the board continues to take an active role in questioning lawmakers’ public conduct.
On Friday, the Associated Press reported that several people have been questioned by the board about whether Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) acted properly in securing an alley closing for George Washington University. Also, court documents obtained by The Washington Post indicate that a matter involving Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) was referred to the ethics board and, because he is a lawyer, to D.C. bar discipline authorities in May.
The board has not launched a formal investigation into either matter.
Sobin’s 18-page opinion, focused on constituent services by elected officials, has already elicited private grumbles from some council members, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to vex the ethics authorities who could rule on their conduct.
Though the opinion says it “will not . . . attempt to redefine the District government or the roles of elected officials within it,” the lawmakers said they are concerned it could throw into question long-accepted practices — the clout, the grease, the influence that gets things done in the city.
For instance: A council member directing a staff member to inquire with a city agency about the status of a constituent’s permit? Permissible, the opinion states. The council member personally inquiring with agency staff about the permit? Not so much.
Unless the legislator in question is in the habit of making permit inquiries, the personal intervention “creates at least an appearance of impropriety,” Sobin writes.
And “power parity” should be taken into account, he writes. That is, whether a council member intervenes with a rank-and-file employee or a high-ranking agency official makes a difference. The former should be avoided “so as to reduce the potential for intimidation.”
The opinion comes four months after the board admonished council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) for improperly intervening with inspectors who were seeking to close a business for health code violations. Orange had defended his intervention on behalf of the business, owned by a campaign contributor, as “clearly acceptable constituent service.”
The board, however, ruled that Orange had abused the “prestige of his office,” and Sobin said in an interview that the “experience demonstrated to us there was uncertainty in this area and that guidance was necessary.”
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said Friday that he and other lawmakers were still digesting the opinion. But he said it was a positive step to have the guidance on paper. “Having some guidelines, even if one might disagree with them, is helpful,” he said, “because we need a bright line.”
The recent inquiries about council members indicate the board has not been shy in probing politically sensitive allegations.
According to a Foggy Bottom Advisory Neighborhood Commission member, Jackson Carnes, Evans said that he reneged on a deal to have George Washington University reimburse the city $2.8 million for the value of the alley land because he needed the university’s support for his pending mayoral campaign.
Evans denied making the comment Friday, and a third person present for the June 26 encounter, community activist Barbara Kahlow, said she did not recall Evans mentioning the university during the conversation.
The Graham referral concerned the legislator’s attempts to intervene in a case before the Office of Administrative Hearings involving a tenant dispute in his ward. Graham sent a letter to the administrative law judge handling the case on April 23, urging him to take into account the case’s potential harmful effect on city rent control policy.
After the judge notified the parties in the case of Graham’s letter, a lawyer involved in the matter said in a May 29 filing that he had filed complaints with the ethics board and bar authorities. The unsolicited letter, attorney Vincent Mark Policy wrote, is a “shocking disregard . . . of [Graham’s] obligations both as an attorney and as a District of Columbia government employee.”
Graham, who is now seeking to formally intervene in the case, declined to comment. Policy could not be reached.
Sobin declined to comment on the Evans and Graham matters, citing city law preventing him from confirming, denying or otherwise discussing informal board inquiries.
However, the advisory opinion issued Thursday contains discussion of a scenario that bears resemblance to the Graham matter — whereby a “Councilmember M” calls an administrative law judge during the course of litigation and urges the judge to rule in favor of a constituent.
“The Councilmember’s action is unacceptable,” the opinion says of the hypothetical legislator.
Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.