Barras: D.C. Council ethics is all illusion Part 1

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

District residents probably hoped the council's passage last year of so-called comprehensive ethics reform meant restoration of integrity in the legislature. Instead, it has been business as usual.

Consider this fact: Not one elected official formally asked the city's Board of Ethics and Government Accountability to review the findings of a Metro-authorized investigation into Jim Graham's actions between 2007 and 2010. Then, he was the District's representative on the board of directors; he also served as its chairman.

"We received no request for a review, and we did not receive any formal complaint from any source," ethics board Chairman Robert Spagnoletti told me last week.

Independent investigators for Metro found that Graham violated its Standards of Conduct. And while witnesses differed on "precise statements made during [a] May 29, 2008 meeting, the weight of the evidence supports that Council member Graham bartered the Florida Avenue Project in exchange for his support of the D.C. lottery contract," Bradley J. Bondi, of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP, wrote in the investigative report.

Anyone who cares about good government should be outraged.

Graham apparently attempted to sell his vote -- although not for cash. He wanted to get rid of Banneker Ventures as the project's developer and was willing to strike a deal with one of the group's principals -- Warren Williams, who also was involved with the W2I lottery team. Graham wanted to install campaign contributor LaKritz Adler as the new project developer.

The councilman has insisted he did nothing wrong -- although in a written statement he said if he said something about supporting the lottery contract for changes to Banneker Ventures' development team, "it was an offhand remark at the very end of an hourlong meeting."

Graham's closed-door maneuvers are offensive and more serious than Marion Barry's sole-source contract to a paramour, which drew the legislature's censure.

That's nothing new. He has been a serial violator: He twice used cadets from the fire department to serve at parties -- birthday and holiday -- he threw. When his chief of staff handed him an envelope from a taxi driver stuffed with cash, Graham returned the money but never reported the attempted bribe to law enforcement.

Council members have given Graham a pass, although the code compels legislators to report immediately to appropriate authorities "any information concerning conduct which he or she knows, or should know, involves corrupt or other criminal activity, or conflict of interest of another councilmember."

After the release of the Metro report, legislators have continued occupying the land of the Three Monkeys -- hearing, seeing and speaking nothing against one of their own. When I asked interim Chairman Phil Mendelson why he, as the legislature's leader, had not requested a District-based investigation, he dodged and danced so much I got dizzy.

Fortunately, the ethics board, using its independent authority, has launched an investigation into Graham's actions. That decision, lacking council impetus, underscores the legislature's continued failure of leadership and ethics.

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

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