Jonetta Rose Barras: Crime and no punishment in D.C.

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

D.C. Councilman Jim Graham doesn't get it. News articles, editorials, a government audit and two investigative reports have detailed his questionable behavior during the 2008 lottery contracting process. Yet, his mantra has been "no crime" and nothing "illegal" occurred.

His parsed comments ignore this fact: Elected leaders are required to exhibit unwavering ethical principles and unimpeachable integrity.

Equally important: Whether the Ward 1 legislator engaged in illegal or criminal activity has not been determined. U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. continues to investigate the role played by council members, including Graham, during the 2008 and 2009 lottery contracting deals.

According to an independent investigation for WMATA, Graham told winning bidders of the District's 2008 lottery that he would vote to approve their contract if they allowed one of his campaign contributors -- LaKritz Adler real estate company -- to join their team on a Metro development project. Graham was the city's representative on the transit agency's board and its chairman. Investigators concluded Graham violated WMATA's Standards of Conduct.

After reviewing "18,000 pages of sworn testimony and documents" gathered by WMATA investigators, the District's ethics board found "substantial reason to believe" Graham also violated three sections of the city's Code of Conduct.

I am not surprised. Graham has had previous brushes with ethical behavior: He has used government workers to staff his parties. He also failed to report an attempted bribe to law enforcement.

He has yet to be punished. The ethics board, created in 2012, lacks legal authority to sanction Graham for the 2008 lottery episode -- without violating his constitutional rights.

What about citizen's rights? Shouldn't taxpayers be protected from elected officials who lack boundaries?

In his zeal, Graham may have helped taint businessman Omar Karim's reputation. He also may have played a role in Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi's termination of his procurement director, Eric Payne.

Councilman Tommy Wells has urged Chairman Phil Mendelson to exhibit "strong leadership" to help "restore the public's trust and confidence." Invoking council rules, the Ward 6 legislator has requested creation of an ad hoc committee to review the board's findings. The council may sanction any member; it doesn't need the ethics board's permission.

Through a spokeswoman, Mendelson acknowledged receipt of Wells' letter. But Mendelson said he had "hoped the board would have resolved the issue rather than let it fester." He said the issue has been investigated enough but promised to talk with legislators to "get a sense of their views."

The majority of the council has morphed into a silent and seemingly complicit gallery. Last week, when I called several members -- Yvette Alexander, Kenyan McDuffie, Vincent Orange, Muriel Bowser, Mary Cheh, Jack Evans, Mendelson and Wells -- only two responded directly: Wells and another who requested anonymity.

The council's failure to act would appear to violate the city's rules for lawmakers. Among other things, the Code of Conduct makes clear District government employees, including legislators, shall not affect adversely the confidence of the public in the integrity of the government.

Who still has faith in the council?

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

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