Barras: Business as usual as Jim Graham appointed to board of troubled youth trust

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras,Phil Mendelson,D.C. Council,Jim Graham

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson must be suffering amnesia. Why else would he agree to appoint Jim Graham to the board of the nonprofit Children's Youth Investment Trust Corp.?

Given Graham's history of questionable behavior, he shouldn't be appointed to anything -- particularly not an organization recovering from abuse and theft perpetrated by another politician.

But Mendelson told me, "Jim asked me and I said yes," adding the council's lawyer has said such appointments "have to be made by council resolution."

Mendelson said he will nominate three people for vacant voting seats and Graham for the nonvoting position. "I will put them together as a package."

Created to build government and private-sector partnerships to support District children and families, the Trust receives most of its money from the city. That and a governance structure giving the mayor and council authority to nominate all board members have left the organization vulnerable to political interference.

In 2009, then-Councilman Harry Thomas pushed to have a $100,000 grant awarded to an organization; the money financed an inaugural ball. He also forced expedited payments of grants to two nonprofit organizations. Those funds eventually landed in Thomas' wallet through an elaborate kickback scheme. He's now in federal prison.

Mendelson's decision to appoint Graham defies logic. It's further testimony of the chairman's willingness to go along to get along.

Equally disturbing, he blind-sided the Trust: "We were neither consulted nor informed," Ed Davies, the organization's executive director, told me. Ditto said Robert Bobb, chairman of the board, adding, "We are moving forward, trying to get the organization in shape."

Graham's presence won't help. He's perceived as one of the city's more ethically challenged legislators.

A Metro-funded investigation concluded when Graham served on its board, he violated the Standard of Conduct. He told winning bidders of the District's 2008 lottery he would vote to approve their contract if they allowed one of his campaign contributors to join their team on a Metro development project. The District's ethics board currently is investigating whether Graham also broke the city's Code of Conduct. (Graham didn't respond to requests for comment but has said he did nothing illegal.)

Last week, in a letter to Bobb, Graham complained the Trust hasn't implemented council recommendations and hasn't been "forthcoming" with information. Bobb disputed those allegations, noting appointment of new managers, completion of the long-delayed 2010 audit and documented evidence of staff responsiveness.

If Graham is dissatisfied, he doesn't need to join the board. As chairman of the committee with oversight of the organization, he has the ultimate hammer: budget authority.

Truth be told, Graham's real concern is his political future. The Metro investigation and other critical reports have weakened his reputation, potentially jeopardizing his re-election next year. Serving on a grant-making board could help to rehabilitate his image. Even as a nonvoting member, Graham could take credit for any Trust-distributed grants.

Mendelson has fallen for this latest round of Graham shenanigans. Hopefully the full council won't do the same.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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