Evans (D-Ward 2) shows no signs of recognizing this reality. He says he has done nothing wrong and is fighting to keep his position with all the energy and defiant tactics that he employed in his unsuccessful bid in the spring to stay on the Metro board.
So it’s up to the District’s other leaders — particularly Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and, to a lesser extent, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) — to force the issue. They have to send a strong signal that the city won’t tolerate backroom, pay-for-access dealings of the sort described in a blistering report on Evans that was released last week.
Unfortunately, the way the council and mayor have handled the Evans scandal suggests they are more interested in protecting their longtime colleague — or at least going to great lengths to give him the benefit of the doubt — than in doing what’s best for the city.
The council waited for months to launch an investigation of Evans, even as the media, the city’s ethics agency and Metro detailed his conflicts of interest. And when it finally released the account of at least 11 instances since 2014 where Evans used his office to help secret clients — who paid him upward of $800 an hour — he still has powerful defenders.
Bowser, Mendelson and council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) have declined to call on Evans to step down. In July, after Metro had found Evans violated its ethics rules and federal agents had searched his Georgetown house, Mendelson said stripping Evans of all his committee assignments would “emasculate” him. Just three of the 13 council members say they would vote to expel Evans if he doesn’t go willingly.
Good-government advocates, candidates who want to replace Evans and organizers of a recall petition are angered by the status quo.
“Both Mayor Bowser and Chairman Mendelson have been dragging their feet from the very beginning,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen who focuses on ethics.
“Bowser has remained aloof as all of these scandals were unfolding,” Holman said. “Mendelson is still remaining distant.”
Their caution springs partly from political loyalty. Evans has been one of Bowser’s strongest supporters. Mendelson relies on Evans — the business community’s best friend on the council — to help keep the body’s left-wing members at bay.
Still, the reluctance to challenge Evans more directly is spawning conspiracy theories. Adam Eidinger, who is leading the recall effort, says he and other volunteers collecting signatures on petitions are regularly asked whether Evans has some kind of leverage over Bowser and Mendelson.
“They’re asking, ‘What does Jack have on the rest of the council?’ ” Eidinger said. “That’s what we hear all the time.”
It’s not clear whether his group will collect enough signatures to force a recall vote. It needs 4,952 valid signatures from Ward 2 by Nov. 18. As of Friday, it had collected 4,700, Eidinger said. Petitioners typically need more than the minimum in case some are invalidated.
Evans has accomplished a great deal for the District in his 28 years on the council. An expert on finances, he played a key role in shepherding the city through the fiscal crisis of the 1990s. He was a leading advocate for building the baseball stadium that is home to the new World Series champions. Despite abundant criticism for his blunt and impolitic rhetoric as Metro board chairman, Evans helped focus the region’s attention on the need for dedicated funding for the transit system and aggressive steps to catch up on overdue maintenance.
That said, the string of embarrassing Evans disclosures is undoing much good work in the city that scrubbed away the tarnish of its past government scandals. In recent years, the council passed significant reforms including a small-donor public financing bill and a comprehensive ethics package.
Dorothy Brizill, executive director of DCWatch, said the District thought it had put in place a system to deal with ethics since two council members and one former council member were convicted of federal crimes in 2012 and 2013.
“Every time in the District you think we’ve closed this chapter and moved on, and then we have to revisit it,” Brizill said.
Outside the District, the Evans scandal revives negative portraits of the city dating back to Marion Barry, whose battles with substance abuse and conviction for cocaine possession came to define a city in crisis. It has given opponents of statehood in Congress a handy club with which to beat the District.
Mendelson agrees that the controversy is hurting the District’s reputation but says he’s moving as fast as he can.
“It’s easy to judge based on hindsight, but the [law firm’s] report was supposed to be done in early September, and the witnesses were refusing to cooperate,” Mendelson said. “What we know now, we didn’t know in July. And what we knew in July, we didn’t know in March.”
Now, he says, unless Evans resigns voluntarily, the council must wait for its ad hoc committee to handle the matter. That means public hearings and a chance for Evans to try to persuade the council that the charges are exaggerated and misleading.
Bowser’s position is to brand Evans’s conduct as “troubling” but to refrain from urging resignation until the council finishes its investigation. Her office also reminds everyone that as a council member, she pushed the legislation that gave the body the power to expel a member if it can muster 11 out of 13 votes.
Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) told the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU-FM (88.5) on Friday that she expected the process to drag on into January. She said she has told Evans, “I am very sure when we take the vote, the vote will be to expel you.”
The longer the wait, the deeper the harm.