The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The controversy surrounding D.C.’s sports betting contract is achingly unsurprising

A sign advertises sports betting at Ocean Resort Casino in Atlantic City, N.J. Sports betting is on its way to the District.
A sign advertises sports betting at Ocean Resort Casino in Atlantic City, N.J. Sports betting is on its way to the District. (Seth Wenig/AP)
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THE LATEST controversy over the District’s award of a lucrative sole-source contract is achingly unsurprising. D.C. has established a procurement system that is steeped in politics and parochialism, with the checkered history to show for it. The shock would come from an absence of questionable practices and preferential treatment.

At issue this time is a $215 million contract awarded to a Greek gaming company to launch and operate online sports betting and continue management of the lottery program. After weeks of fierce debate, the D.C. Council voted 7 to 5 on July 9 to approve the no-bid contract to Intralot. D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt had recommended — and the council agreed — bypassing the bid process as a way of speeding the city’s entry into the competitive gaming market and maximizing the city’s return.

But then came the troubling developments. The ethics scandal surrounding Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who had championed the sole-source contract, intensified and cast a shadow over his involvement. Questions emerged about some of the local companies selected by Intralot as subcontractors to satisfy city requirements for work going to local and minority-owned businesses. Some had little in the way of experience in sports gambling but a great deal in the way of political connections.

“Every time, there will be politically connected [companies] attached to a contract of this size. The subs will . . . say, ‘Pick me, because I know the mayor. Pick me, because I know Council member so-and-so. Pick me,’ ” said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) in an admission that says volumes about why there is a perception of pay-to-play in getting the city’s business.

The council took a step in the right direction last year when it adopted the Campaign Finance Reform Act, which includes a ban on political donations from companies seeking large government contracts. It will go into effect on Nov. 4, 2020, and it will be important to police how it is implemented.

More, though, needs to be done, starting with examination of the certified business enterprise program. The strange circumstances recently detailed by The Post’s Fenit Nirappil about one of Intralot’s listed subcontractors — the cousin of D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) is listed as chief executive but says he knows nothing about the company — raises questions about the program. No doubt it started out with the good intentions of encouraging minority and local businesses, but is it being abused and, as some say, badly enforced?

If the council is serious about taking the politics out of contracting, it needs to take itself out of the process of reviewing and approving contracts. Set up a system with proper enforcement and oversight that bases contract decisions on technical qualifications and price — and not on who can hire the most effective lobbyist or line up the best-connected subcontractors.

Read more:

Colbert I. King: Choosing subcontractors based on their political connections has become acceptable in D.C.

Colbert I. King: It’s been a rough week for D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt

Christian Genetski and Griffin Finan: Sports betting isn’t a game. D.C. shouldn’t grant a monopoly.

The Post’s View: Jack Evans is departing the Metro board. But the story isn’t over.

Colbert I. King: It’s time for the D.C. Council to hold Jack Evans accountable