The Old Testament describes the ancient tradition in which a high priest would place the sins of the Israelites on the head of a goat and send that scapegoat to carry those sins into the wilderness, never to be seen again. Everyone felt much better afterward — everyone except, of course, the goat.
When things go poorly, there is an impulse to blame someone. We are concerned that news organizations and pundits seem determined to turn our client, D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), into the scapegoat for the District’s sins in the controversy over the politicized 2008 D.C lottery contract.
The Post has devoted numerous editorials to Graham and this contract. Following The Post’s lead, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority commissioned an investigation that resulted in a report criticizing Graham’s opposition to awarding a Metro contract to an entity in which one of the principals of the lottery vendor played a prominent role. The new D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability is now treating that report as an ethics complaint and is investigating the matter.
We applaud these organizations’ zeal for seeking out ethical impropriety. But Graham is the wrong target for their efforts. When you look at the facts, it is clear that he has done nothing wrong.
Graham’s “sin,” according to his harshest critics, was to state that multiple publicly funded D.C. contracts should not go to unqualified bidders. For better or worse, he made this statement to a bidder whom he believed to be unqualified.
On May 29, 2008, Graham met with a group led by Warren Williams Jr. that was bidding to receive the D.C. lottery contract. Williams had long been notorious in D.C. affairs for his ownership of Club U, which lost its liquor license after the fatal stabbing of a patron on the dance floor, as well as of an apartment building where tenants repeatedly complained to the District’s housing authority about substandard conditions. At the time, Williams was also a principal of Banneker Ventures, a contracting firm that was known for its ties to then-Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) and that was bidding on a WMATA development project in Graham’s ward.
At the end of the meeting, Graham made an offhand remark conveying his dismay that, despite Williams’s record of irresponsibility, he had successfully procured so many D.C. contracts. This remark has been misinterpreted, twisted and reinvented into some sort of quid pro quo offer wherein, if Williams withdrew from the development contract with WMATA, Graham would consider supporting him in the bidding for the lottery contract. Four of the seven individuals who attended the meeting recall no such offer.
Under other circumstances, this might be a typical “he said, she said” dispute. The reaction, however, has been anything but typical or even-handed. First, The Post and WMATA appear to have accepted as fact that the quid pro quo offer occurred. In fact, the majority of those who were at the meeting (including Graham) contradicts this version of the conversation. Additionally, they have also gone so far as to condemn Graham’s conduct as somehow unethical. This is classic scapegoating. The media have also ignored the critical point that the majority of those who were at the meeting (including Graham) contradicts this version of the conversation. More important, there was nothing unethical about Graham’s speaking his mind about the qualifications of a potential vendor. The alleged quid pro quo offer did not occur.
Indeed, even if the worst accounts of Graham’s conduct are true, the council member violated no ethical precepts and broke no laws. And this is where we find the scapegoating most unfair. By expressing his opinion that multiple D.C. contracts should not go to an individual he regarded as unqualified and irresponsible, Graham acted in the public interest. If he remained silent in such cases, his constituents should cry out in anger.
There are issues related to the D.C. lottery contract that merit serious attention. Graham’s voicing his opposition to a crony of the former mayor getting rich from taxpayer-funded contracts is not one of them. Graham had no personal interest in either the D.C. lottery contract or the WMATA project. He gained nothing from his opposition. Moreover, his remarks were ultimately without any consequence to how Williams fared in either contract. It is hard to remember the last time so much attention has been focused on such inconsequential events.
The temptation to scapegoat (and to sensationalize) is part of human nature. Journalists and other allegedly neutral fact-finders have a responsibility to do better. They have a responsibility not to report as fact only one side of a dispute where the truth is in doubt. And they must do more than recite allegations of “unethical” behavior without asking what ethical precept the behavior actually violates. In other words, they must seek to provide a clear-eyed accounting of history and responsibility, rather than carelessly sending a politician into the wilderness for speaking up when he saw a potential misuse of taxpayer dollars.
To brand D.C. Council member Jim Graham as a villain in the D.C. lottery controversy is to unfairly tarnish the reputation of a public servant who has tirelessly served the best interests of the District for 15 years. We trust the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability will take an objective and level-headed look at the matter and see it as we do.
The writers are lawyers representing D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1).