DC Council member Jack Evans and that slippery slope

July 4, 2019

It isn’t just some handy cliché for which many of us reach when we can’t seem to precisely describe the potential danger inherent in a situation. In fact, there is such a place as the slippery slope. How and when did Ward 2 DC Council member Jack Evans find it? 

 

Did he discover it when he allegedly requested a summer internship for his son from Donald MacCord, president of electronics advertising company Digi Outdoor Media that was pressing Evans for passage of legislation that would allow MacCord’s firm to plaster signs on the exteriors of dozens of buildings throughout the city? Did the man who often boasts of being the council’s “longest-serving” member arrive at the slippery slope when, in 2015, he sent out a memorandum soliciting work from a couple of law firms, casting himself as a wheeling-dealing political influencer? Was it back when he allegedly started misusing his Constituent Services Fund or as he cavalierly dismissed the city’s parking regulations?

 

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment of arrival. This much is clear: Evans appears to be sliding down that thing t breakneck speed. 

 

He has slathered himself in mud, the result of questionable behaviors as a council member and as chairman of the board of directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). In the process, he has sabotaged what some have described as an impressive record of political and public policy achievements — helping rescue the city from financial bankruptcy, reviving the Gallery Place, West End and Shaw neighborhoods, and supporting the return of baseball to the nation’s capital, for example. Equally important, Evans appears to have destroyed his relationship with many of his colleagues on the council who gave him the benefit of the doubt earlier this year when they declined to launch an investigation, choosing instead to merely reprimand him for his misuse of government resources and alleged influence peddling. 

 

“I do feel betrayed,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said Monday, adding that Evans had “misrepresented” the findings of the WMATA investigation. Evans told his colleagues and the public that essentially he had received a clean evaluation. In fact, WMATA’s independent, third-party investigators found that Evans “knowingly” violated the Code of Conduct and Compact.

 

He failed to disclose a consulting relationship with at least three companies doing business with or attempting to do business with WMATA — Colonial Parking, Eagle Bank and Digi Outdoor Media. According to the report, Evans had asked Eagle Bank to hire him. He accepted a check from Digi but eventually returned it. He also aggressively trashed LAZ — Colonial Parking’s competitor. Evans, through his private consulting company, had received a $50,000 retainer payment from Colonial. LAZ and Colonial appear to have been hoping to land the same lucrative WMATA parking management contract.

 

Before the details of the investigative report were made public, Evans had argued that his decision to step down as chairman was unrelated to the investigation. Then, remarkably, he confessed: Yes, he had agreed to resign his board chairmanship as part of a deal with colleagues on the WMATA board; yes, he had failed to disclose his relationship with Colonial and the others; and yes, he was trying to block LAZ from getting the contract. 

 

“I am not happy about myself or the public being misled about [his] Metro advocacy,” Mendelson said Monday. That was an understatement. Anyone who knows Mendelson knows he is angry about this latest episode involving Evans’ inappropriate behavior, which has brought unnecessary scrutiny to the entire legislature.

 

The council had received earlier this year a federal subpoena demanding tons of documents involving MacCord’s push to win approval for installing digital advertisements. Then came the revelation that Evans had used his office email account and his council staff to distribute employment solicitation memoranda in 2015 and 2018. Now the WMATA examination has disclosed even more widespread influence peddling and ethical lapses.

 

While Mendelson was on the council when Harry Thomas Jr. and Kwame Brown were each hit with federal charges, this case involving Evans is, perhaps, more difficult for the chairman — and not just because he now heads the council. As a centrist Democrat in a river of far-left progressives, Evans has been a reliable ally for Mendelson in recent years, particularly around fiscal matters, including holding the line on tax increases. 

 

The recent near-uprising by council members during the process of approving the fiscal 2020 budget and financial plan serves as indication of future problems that may confront Mendelson as his go-to voting block disintegrates. What’s more, with the next campaign season approaching, there are a half-dozen members seeking re-election or angling for higher office, thus engaging in nauseous amounts of posturing and pontificating.

 

Mendelson’s skill as political circus ringmaster will be tested beginning July 9. That’s when he has said he will appoint an ad hoc committee to investigate Evans; that panel will be supported by an outside lawyer with expertise in conducting such probes. There is, of course, no budget set aside for any of that. Mendelson said he hopes the work can be completed over the summer recess. 

 

Meanwhile, Evans has resigned from his seat on the WMATA board and may be stripped of his chairmanship of the council’s powerful Committee on Finance and Revenue — a perch that brought him great pride and prestige and from which he sought to sell his vast knowledge and influence. He has, however, asked his colleagues to provide him an opportunity to rebut findings in the WMATA report. At an administrative meeting held July 2 Evans tried to offer his  side of the story. Given that he is under federal criminal investigation, there were just too many questions he couldn't answer without creating potential problems for himself. There was no indication, however, that trust between his colleagues and himself had been restored. 

 

Council members are likely to still vote to censure Evans. He would then join the ranks of Marion Barry. In 2013 the then-Ward 8 representative was censured by the council for taking cash from contractors doing business with the city; Barry also lost his committee chairmanship. He drew a similar rebuke in 2010 as well. 

 

Mendelson said he has not decided who will be given control of the finance committee, although there will not be a “full reorganization” of the council. Mendeslon presided over the recent public hearing dealing with the proposed sports-wagering contract.

 

“Why doesn’t he just resign?” one former government official and Evans ally asked in conversation with me. “[Evans] could get clients and make a high six-figure salary. His resignation would end all of this stuff.”

 

I have not come to bury Evans; he’s doing a pretty good job of that all by himself. Nor am I saying that he has been involved in any illegal or corrupt enterprise. However, violating various government codes of ethics and abusing the public’s trust are significant offenses.

 

In fairness, the latest dustup seems more of the same for Metro; there have been other cases of staff and board members breaking the rules and intervening where they shouldn’t. In 2012, Metro issued a report that found that Ward 1 Council member Jim Graham violated ethics rules when he sought to influence the agency’s plans to develop land on Florida Avenue NW (Graham, who was no longer a Metro board member by the time the report came out, ended up drawing a reprimand from his council colleagues). Metro’s recent parking director was fired after it was learned that he had provided information to LAZ Parking. Moreover, LAZ is no saint; it has been involved in other controversies in Boston and Tennessee. 

 

The political dynamics at the transit agency also can be lethal. During his tenure, Evans helped push for all regional governments to share in covering WMATA’s subway costs and embraced the plan that reduced the size of the board, drawing criticism from several elected officials. That may help explain why Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and others so vigorously advocated for Evans’ resignation.

 

None of that excuses Evans’ actions, however. It is disappointing to watch the decline of a career that began with such enormous promise. Back in the early 1990s, Evans had been a member of the Young Turks — a group that eventually included Harold Brazil, Kevin Chavous, Bill Lightfoot, Linda Cropp and Kathy Patterson. Collectively they helped bring sanity to the city’s finances and can be partially credited for rescuing it from bankruptcy. While Evans was considered a fiscal conservative, he grew to be a huge advocate of large development projects as the primary vehicle for transforming the District. For the most part, that strategy produced measurable and, some have said, remarkable results. It eventually led to Evans being characterized as the friend-of-the-rich. 

 

“He felt he was traveling with the elite,” said a longtime political activist and Evans supporter, who requested anonymity like others I interviewed for this column. “He became trapped in all of that, and there was no one to hold his hand and tell him ‘No’ when he needed to hear it.”

 

Despite Evans’ footing on the slippery slope and the seemingly overwhelming evidence of ethical misbehavior, Ward 5 Council member Kenyan McDuffie, a former prosecutor, has advised everyone to take a breath. “I would caution against predetermining the outcome and discipline of an ad hoc committee prior to gathering all relevant facts and evidence,” he said in a prepared statement last month.

 

“The allegations [against Evans] are incredibly troubling,” continued McDuffie. “More troubling and potentially damaging to the council’s public integrity, however, is a contrived ad hoc committee process driven by politics.”

 

He’s right, of course. But the public may not have the patience to wait.

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