Jonetta Rose Barras: Crime and maybe punishment in D.C.

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

OK, call me an ingrate. I have complained for the past year about D.C. Council members' repeated failure to condemn questionable behavior by their colleague Jim Graham.

Chairman Phil Mendelson finally stepped up this week, introducing a resolution that would formally reprimand the Ward 1 legislator for actions in which Graham engaged in 2008. It also would snatch the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board from oversight of Graham's committee.

"There is no question the integrity of the government and the council has been harmed," Mendelson told me.

The city's Board of Ethics and Government Accountability reported earlier this month that there was "sufficient evidence" Graham had violated three sections of the District's code of conduct when he told winning bidders of the 2008 lottery that he would vote to approve their contract if they allowed one of his campaign contributors -- the LaKritz Adler real estate company -- to join their team for a Metro development project. Graham was the city's representative on the transit agency's board and its chairman.

Mendelson's resolution has drawn praise from some civic leaders, like Ward 1's Tony DePasse. "Graham breached the public confidence. What he did was not ethical and possibly illegal," he said.

Others, myself included, were unsatisfied. The alcohol board should never have been under a committee dealing with welfare and homeless issues. Further, a reprimand is a soft slap. A hard punch is needed.

Graham should be censured.

"I would vote to censure Graham," said Elissa Silverman, a social activist and current council candidate who has worked very closely with Graham and acknowledged the importance of his efforts on welfare and aid to the homeless.

"But that does not cancel out the very serious ethics issues," Silverman added.

Mendelson said diminishing Graham's responsibilities indicated "more than simply a statement of reprimand." Further, he said it was the "best option" given the extended course the council would have had to take before it could impose any stronger sanction.

"If the rules were not as complicated, I would have supported the censure route," added Mendelson.

Tommy Wells had requested creation of an ad hoc committee, which, according to council rules, would have led to another investigation before imposition of any stronger sanction.

"I did what I thought was right for the council," Wells told me, adding the council must take action to remove the "continuing ethical cloud" over it.

He disagreed, however, that Graham's action merited censure. He drew a distinction between the Ward 1 legislator and Marion Barry, who was censured in 2010.

"Marion gave a contract to a girlfriend; drove her to the bank to cash the check; and when she got back in the car, she handed him cash from that check," explained Wells. "Jim may have intervened on behalf of a [campaign] donor, but that donor did not give him any cash."

That's dangerous partitioning.

Former at-large Councilman William Lightfoot asserted Graham's "offense is equal to Marion Barry's. [Graham] should be punished equally."

Let's all say amen.

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

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