How The Washington Post Covers for a Top D.C. Official

How The Washington Post Covers for a Top D.C. Official

Published at Counterpunch

The Washington Post is known for aggressively reporting on local corruption in D.C., but the newspaper makes an exception for Jack Evans, the city’s longest-serving councilmember. For nearly two decades Evans has chaired the influential finance and revenue committee, giving him sway over how D.C.’s $14.5 billion budget is allocated. From this powerful perch Evans has pushed projects that benefit his private interests, while the Post has largely looked the other way.

That seemed to change in May when the Post reported that Evans and a lobbyist had quietly set up an LLC, which received $50,000 from a digital sign company with business before the city. Evans – who went to great lengths for the company, Digi Media – claims he returned their checks. But “that’s a matter of optics,” explained a former federal prosecutor. “We wouldn’t look at whether he gave the money back… The point is he formed this company and he took the money.”

The former prosecutor told this to Jeffrey Anderson of District Dig. It is Anderson’s reporting that has broken open much of this story, and led D.C.’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability to open an investigation into the matter. Whether BEGA’s investigation leads to more than a slap on the wrist, which is the most Evans’ past misconduct has yielded, remains to be seen.

For a story to have real impact in D.C., the Post’s weigh-in is key. So it was nice to see the Post follow up on Anderson’s reporting with its own story on Evans’ LLC receiving the $50,000.

But that story received just one column on the front page of the May 3 Metro section. That was over a month ago and since then there’s been no follow up story. Even when the Post got ahold of an eye-opening letter from Evans to the contractor, it was posted online with no additional coverage.

This 2016 letter – in which Evans claimed to have returned two $25,000 checks – is addressed to Don MacCord, a Digi Media executive. In 2016 Digi Media was attempting to plaster D.C. with some 50 digital billboards, which it projected would earn the company hundreds of millions of dollars in ad revenue.

In his letter to MacCord, Evans explains that if he were to cash the checks before voting on the digital sign issue he would have to recuse himself due to a conflict of interest, which wouldn’t help either of them. “I believe that it is in both of our best interests for me to delay the initiation of a business relationship with your company while this potential conflict exists,” Evans wrote. “We can resume discussions about the need for a consulting arrangement between your company and NSE Consulting [Evans’ LLC] as soon as the digital display issue is resolved.”

Evans maintains “there was nothing improper” with the arrangement, yet he still says he returned the checks because his thinking on the matter evolved. “It was just getting the checks and saying, ‘Hmm, I don’t think this is a good idea,’” Evans told the Post. “I just didn’t even want to have a perception of a conflict of interest.”

“While it is noteworthy that Evans returned the initial checks to Digi Media,” explained Craig Holman of Public Citizen, “the proposal by Evans to resume his contractual relationship with the company in the near future raises the same conflict of interest concerns.”

In addition to writing checks to his LLC, Digi Media showed love for Evans in other ways, too. Anderson’s reporting shows that when Evans sought support for his constituent services fund in 2015, Digi Media associates quickly came up with $13,000. MacCord offered Evans’ college-age son a $20 per hour summer internship at Digi Media in 2016. (“My son John is interested in the summer intern job,” Evans emailed MacCord, but later said his son didn’t take the position.) Also in 2016, Evans sought help bundling contributions for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and Digi Media executives helped push Evans past the $50,000 mark, allowing him and MacCord to attend an exclusive event for Clinton in Nantucket.

Meanwhile, Evans went to bat for Digi Media. As the company’s push to blanket D.C. with digital billboards ran afoul of city regulations, Evans introduced emergency legislation in late 2016. Evans’ bill was an end-run around both Attorney General Karl Racine, who had filed suit against Digi Media, and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which had issued the company a stop-work order. At the last minute, seeing he lacked the votes, Evans pulled his bill. 

At that point, having already taken official action benefitting a company that did him favors, Evans might have thrown in the towel. Instead “he punted to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office to fashion an executive rule change” that would have made a Council vote unnecessary, Anderson reported. (After waffling, Bowser elected not to take executive action.)

While this may seem suspect, Evans says it’s not. “There’s no connection between any of this stuff,” Evans told the Post. “There was no summer internship… and no legislation. My puzzlement is there’s no real story other than none of this happened.”

Indeed, despite Evans’ efforts, Digi Media was stopped in its tracks – in no small part because of grassroots opposition, led by the civic group The Committee of 100 on the Federal City. But even if the city had given the green light it’s unclear whether Digi Media could have executed its plan. In late 2017, MacCord and another Digi Media executive were arrested and charged in two related federal indictments, with defrauding investors and obstruction of justice.

As MacCord faces the possibility of years behind bars, Evans now claims they were never that close. “I know Don, but I don’t know him that well,” Evans told the Post.

It’s hard to imagine a juicier story. A top official and a lobbyist quietly set up an LLC, which receives $50,000 from a company with business before the city. The official goes to bat for the company, but the whole affair ends in failure; and the company’s executives are hauled off in handcuffs.

Post readers can be forgiven for not knowing that this actually happened, since it unfolded largely outside the pages of the Post. And this isn’t the first time the Post has downplayed Evans’ questionable ethics.

Conflicted Dealmaking

Over the course of his record-breaking 27 years on the Council, the Post has largely looked the other way as Jack Evans crossed bright ethical lines with impunity.

For nearly two decades Evans has served as chair of the finance and revenue committee, where he has shepherded through deals involving several billion taxpayer dollars. While Evans claims he acts in the best interests of District residents, that’s not always clear, since some of his official actions have benefited clients of the very law firms where he’s worked.

Despite being a top D.C. official with sway over how the city’s tax dollars are spent, Evans, like other councilmembers, is allowed to earn outside income over and above his $137,000 Council salary. It’s unclear exactly what Evans does for his second salary, and Evans won’t disclose who his clients are, claiming attorney-client privilege protects that information.

Evans’ attempts to shroud his dealings have been aided by the Post, which has consistently failed to point out the councilman’s questionable dealings.

When nuclear giant Exelon’s $6.8 billion takeover of Pepco was initially blocked by D.C.’s Public Service Commission in 2015, Evans called on the PSC to reverse course (which it did). What Evans didn’t tell commissioners was that he was now working for Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, the very firm representing both Pepco and Exelon. Post readers have yet to be informed of this conflict of interest.

In 2009, when Marriott sought public funding to build an 1,167-room hotel next to the Convention Center, Evans was strongly in favor. At least until the one public hearing on the deal, which Evans co-chaired. At it, civic leader Dave Mallof and I asked Evans if he had a conflict of interest through his firm, lobby powerhouse Patton Boggs. (For over a decade, through 2015, Evans worked for Patton Boggs, which paid him a $190,000 annual salary.) While Evans didn’t respond to our questions about a conflict of interest, two days later he started recusing himself from voting on the deal. Evans claimed he was doing so only out of an “abundance of caution,” but there was more to it. It turned out that Patton Boggs represented ING, a major financing partner in the deal – a deal made sweeter thanks to $272 million in public funds approved by the Council. While D.C. law requires councilmembers to file a written explanation for their recusals, Evans never did. When independent journalist John Hanrahan pointed this out, Evans responded by calling the former Post reporter “a f---ing idiot.”

Evans was much nicer to the principals in the Marriott hotel deal, which in 2010 became ensnared in a lawsuit brought by mega-developer JBG. Evans – despite having recused himself from the matter – brought the warring parties together. Rather than call out Evans’ conflict of interest, the Post instead highlighted his mediation efforts, writing, “Behind the scenes, D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) is trying to get the parties to resolve their dispute.” Evans’ efforts paid off at a July 2010 closed-door meeting at city offices, where Evans, then-Attorney General Peter Nickles and executives from Marriott and JBG reached an agreement; one which ING, a client of Evans’ firm, stood to benefit from. Evans’ conflict of interest in this matter, which involved over a quarter billion in taxpayer dollars, was reported on in a single Post story (online only, not in print).

The Post let Evans off the hook again in 2010 when he offered upwards of $25 million in public subsidies to defense contractor Northrop Grumman, which was looking to move its headquarters to the D.C. area. “Whatever someone else puts down we’re going to match it and we’re going to beat it,” Evans declared, thereby encouraging a bidding war among neighboring jurisdictions. The Post reported on the jurisdictional jockeying but failed to mention that Northrop Grumman was a client of the Breaux-Lott Leadership Group, which had formed a “strategic relationship” with Patton Boggs, Evans’ firm. (Patton Boggs – now Squire Patton Boggs – subsequently bought Breaux-Lott.) “For a legislator to promote legislation that would benefit his own firm’s client, or the client of a closely-related firm, is the very essence of conflict of interest, as well as a possible violation of D.C. law,” wrote John Hanrahan, who broke this story. Northrop Grumman ended up in Falls Church, Va., possibly with a sweeter deal thanks to Evans. 

In 2004, when Evans voted to award a tax break to CareFirst, he did so without disclosing that the health care company was a client of his firm, Patton Boggs. What’s more, Evans failed to disclose that Patton Boggs listed him as personally lobbying Congress on CareFirst’s behalf, The Washington Times’ Jim McElhatton reported, citing federal and city records. But Patton Boggs brushed the report aside, saying Evans hadn’t lobbied for CareFirst, it was just “a simple mistake” the firm made in their filings. 

The Post didn’t follow up on the Times’ story, but what if it had? “You do have to wonder, what if the Post had gotten on the story a decade ago, would Jack have even thought of doing what he did here [with Digi Media]?” asked McElhatton, the former Times reporter. “I don’t think so.”

While none of this dealmaking, which the Post largely ignored, led to disciplinary action against Evans, a 2005 story did. In a rare hard-hitting piece on Evans, the Post reported that the councilman was using his political action committee, Jack PAC, as a personal piggy bank, reimbursing himself for thousands of dollars in meals, flights and tons of sports tickets. The Office of Campaign Finance found that Evans broke no laws, but recommended he repay Jack PAC $6,772.72; which Evans did, before shutting down the PAC. 

Having aggressively reported on Evans, the Post quickly reverted to form – and so did Evans. In the years since, the councilman has continued to support, and even steer public funds to projects in which he has a personal interest.

Photo Credit: The Washington Times

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