D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser departed for China on Saturday, etching her name on a long list of city leaders who have led delegations to promote tourism and to solicit Chinese investment in the nation’s capital.
Who is traveling with Bowser (D), however, is fueling a fresh round of questions about the relationship between her administration and some donors to a political action committee set up by her former campaign treasurer.
The mayor’s administration selected 16 business leaders to accompany her, and the city is using taxpayer money to host a series of official events to help them pitch projects directly to Chinese investors. Through one program, Chinese nationals could be awarded U.S. visas for investing $500,000 or more in one of the D.C. developments.
Two business leaders accompanying Bowser — developer Buwa Binitie and health-care executive Babu Stephen — have contributed $10,000 each to the Bowser’s PAC since it was established seven months ago.
A third, David Franco, has not contributed. But he is seeking investment in China for a project that has a silent investor who is the single-largest contributor to the PAC.
On the eve of Bowser’s trip, questions about the PAC — unprecedented in D.C. politics because of how closely it is aligned with the agenda of a sitting mayor — overshadowed the potential benefits from the trade mission in the D.C. Council chambers.
In a hearing Thursday on an affordable-housing project, Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) grilled Binitie about his contribution to the PAC and whether he might be receiving special treatment for his political support. Bowser wants to sell a downtown parcel to a group including Binitie and Richard Lake, another developer going to China, to build the development.
“I don’t know what we get out of these trips. I don’t know how people get selected. Is it because they are now plopping down $10,000 or $20,000?” Cheh asked afterward. “If you add it all up, it just looks really bad. . . . It can only sully the reputation of the mayor.”
Binitie, whom Bowser also appointed to the board of the city’s Housing Finance Agency, declined to comment Friday about the trip or what projects he might bring before Chinese investors. He referred questions to the mayor’s office.
At a groundbreaking with the mayor for another project on Friday, Binitie said affordable housing was his “passion,” and he called Bowser the city’s “fearless, fearless, fearless leader.”
Brian Kenner, Bowser’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said the administration is focused on getting results from the China trip. The city invited each of the business leaders who will accompany the mayor, he said, because the administration was aware that they had projects in the works that could benefit from foreign capital.
The mayor’s spokesman, Michael Czin, also defended the invitations.
“Each member of the delegation from D.C. is going for one reason: they have a proven ability to create jobs and grow the District’s economy,” Czin said.
Over the past two years, individual foreign investors have committed or delivered almost $300 million to D.C. projects under the nation’s EB-5 visa program. The District could not immediately say how many visas had been issued in exchange for that investment.
“The way I like to think about this stuff is that we, as the government, are sort of helping to build a little infrastructure, a bridge . . . and then allowing many of the business sectors that we have in Washington, small and large, to use that bridge to do things over there,” Kenner said.
Although Chinese investment in the District has been dwarfed in recent years by money that has rolled in from Qatar, Canada and other countries, the Chinese have become the District’s biggest tourism partner. More people visited the District from China — 221,000 — last year than from any other country.
“We’re seeing the return in terms of investment, EB-5 and other business expansion,” Kenner said.
Bowser follows former mayors, Democrats Marion Barry, Anthony Williams and Vincent C. Gray, who led delegations to China. Adrian M. Fenty (D) also attended the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Bowser said she is hoping for a major deal with Chinese investors.
“They are very interested in D.C., the Chinese, and they are especially interested in big projects, so we want to be able to talk to them about the big projects that haven’t gotten as much attention or may not be as flashy, but still need significant capital,” she said.
Those potential projects include the redevelopment of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital campus, Kenner said.
Kenner, along with Bowser chief of staff John Falcicchio and two other D.C. officials, traveled to China in July to set up meetings for the mayor. Among those, the mayor’s office said, is a planned meeting with the head of the Wanda Group, one of China’s wealthiest businessmen.
Bowser said she hopes to discuss with Chinese officials how to expand the potential field of EB-5 projects to include affordable housing and charter schools in the District. Bowser has in recent months tried to help raise funds for her priority for a new high school for boys of color.
Franco, a principal with Level 2 Development whom Bowser has nominated to the city’s powerful zoning board, said he would pursue EB-5 money on the trip for his company’s proposed 313-unit High Line residential project near Union Market.
Robert Goodrich, who has invested in that project, has contributed $20,000 to the PAC, which Bowser supporters dubbed Fresh PAC, after her campaign slogan of a “Fresh Start.”
Franco said Goodrich was a minor investor, contributing “low single digits” to the $13 million that has been committed so far. He said there was no connection between the PAC contribution and his trip, and he said Goodrich has “no say whatsoever” in the development. He said drawing lines between Goodrich and his trip was connecting “[phantom] dots” and that he has not and will not contribute to Fresh PAC.
Stephen, head of D.C. Health Care Inc., did not return calls to his cellphone.
City officials said the expected cost of the trip for Bowser, Falcicchio, Kenner and five other city officials is about $80,000, not including the mayor’s two-person security detail.
In all, 38 people are traveling in the delegation, including former mayor Williams; Kurt Newman, president of the Children’s National Health System; Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2); and the city’s chief financial officer, Jeffrey DeWitt. Georgetown University President Jack DeGioia will be in China and join the delegation for some meetings.
Bowser’s cousin, Christina Ferguson, is also traveling with the group. Like the other non-governmental members of the delegation, the mayor’s office said she is paying her own way.