THE CHAIR OF the Metro board of directors announced Tuesday the launch of an independent review into the handling of an unsuccessful development venture on Florida Avenue NW, about which we have written several recent editorials. It is a welcome move but late. We point that out not to be churlish but because the failure to investigate sooner raises questions about District and Metro processes.
Concerns about the contract, and D.C. Council member Jim Graham’s role in it, surfaced long ago. The District’s chief financial officer (in 2008), top Metro officials and D.C.’s attorney general (both in 2010) all received complaints. Yet none of these offices seemed to think it was its responsibility to get to the bottom of the matter.
Only recently, with the release last month of D.C. Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby’s report on the District’s lottery dealings, has attention refocused on the case. Mr. Willoughby cited evidence suggesting that Mr. Graham, then D.C.’s representative to Metro, offered to support the bid of a group vying for the city’s lottery contract if one of its members would pull out of an unrelated venture to develop Metro-owned property. Mr. Willoughby found insufficient evidence of improper conduct, but he said the council member’s actions raised questions about his impartiality and independence that could undermine public confidence in government integrity. Mr. Graham, who was not referred to by name in the IG’s report, has denied linking the two contracts or favoring a competing bidder. Contemporaneous e-mails call those denials into question.
How then to explain — and here we are being charitable — the nonchalant response of District and transit agency officials to concerns about Mr. Graham’s behavior? Robert Andary, then director of the Office of Integrity and Oversight under Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, got wind of complaints about Mr. Graham within weeks of the council member’s May 29, 2008, meeting with the lottery bidders. Mr. Andary learned of the allegations while investigating another lottery-related issue. He would not discuss the matter with us, but city sources confirm he filed a preliminary memo. (In an e-mail to us, Mr. Graham wrote Tuesday that he was not interviewed by Mr. Andary and did not know the outcome.) At the city’s behest, the memo has been placed under court seal as part of a federal lawsuit brought by a former contract officer who says he was fired for resisting political pressure on the lottery contract. So the public is left to wonder: What did Mr. Andary conclude? Was no further action taken? And if there’s nothing to hide, why won’t the city release his memo?
Two years later, attorney A. Scott Bolden asked the Metro inspector general to look into allegations that Mr. Graham improperly tried to influence selection of the developer of the Florida Avenue parcel. General Counsel Carol B. O’Keefe responded to Mr. Bolden, but her comments were focused only on Mr. Graham’s interactions with those who sought to develop the site, not on his alleged attempt to play the lottery contract against the Metro deal. “Board members frequently discuss the progress of joint development negotiations with the parties involved. . . . The allegations in your letter, standing alone, do not appear to constitute a violation of the Board’s Standards of Conduct,” she wrote on May 28, 2010.
It doesn’t appear any effort was made to investigate what transpired at the May 2008 meeting. One complication may have been the Metro rule that precludes the agency’s inspector general from investigating allegations of misconduct by a board member without the authorization of the board chair, vice chair or chair of the audits and investigations committee. It also was clear — as was recently reiterated to us by Peter Benjamin, then Metro chair — that Metro saw these as “District of Columbia matters.”
Mr. Graham seemed to agree, writing to Mr. Bolden, “I reject as wholly groundless the accusations made in your letter. . . . I am now asking the D.C. Attorney General for his review and action on this matter.” But there is no evidence that the attorney general undertook such a review. “To my knowledge, I never received a response,” Mr. Graham e-mailed us last week. A spokesman for the current attorney general said the office had no knowledge of a review. Peter J. Nickles, who was then attorney general, said he had only a vague memory of the matter but “wasn’t that something [Metro] took care of?”
Allowing these questions to fall through the cracks, unanswered, does a disservice to the public. We hope Metro has come to that realization, though it’s a bit worrying that, in the same statement announcing an independent review, Metro board chair Catherine M. Hudgins also expressed confidence that the matter was handled properly.
“I support another review of this, and I will cooperate in that review,” Mr. Graham e-mailed us Tuesday.