The Washington Post and the Councilman: How the Post Covers Up Local Corruption

The Washington Post is known for aggressively reporting on local corruption in D.C., but it makes an exception for Jack Evans, the city’s longest-serving councilmember.

In early May the Post reported that an LLC setup by Evans and a lobbyist received $50,000 from a company that Evans was advocating for. Evans claims he returned the funds, 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 prosecutor spoke to Jeffrey Anderson of District Dig. It is Anderson’s reporting that has not only broken open much of this sordid story, but also led D.C.’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability to open an investigation into the matter. Whether the 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 a month ago and there’s been no follow up in print and little online. Even when the Post got ahold of an eye-opening letter from Evans to the contractor, the paper posted it online with no additional coverage.

This 2016 letter – in which Evans claimed to have returned two $25,000 checks – is addressed to Don MacCord, an executive with digital billboard company Digi Media. 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 – and this 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 said.

“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.”

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/hour summer internship at Digi Media in 2016. (“My son John is interested in the summer intern job,” Evans emailed MacCord; but Evans 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 decided not totake 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. 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 said recently.

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 spectacular 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 Posthas downplayed Evans’ scandals.

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. From that powerful perch, 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 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 (which has routinely surpassed his Council earnings), 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, then Patton Boggs. Evans didn’t respond but two days later started recusing himself from voting on the deal. Evans said he was recusing himself out of an “abundance of caution,” but he was lying. 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.

The following year the planned hotel project became ensnared in a lawsuit brought by developer JBG. Evans – despite having recused himself from the matter – jumped right back into the mix, bringing the warring parties together. Rather than call out Evans’ conflict of interest, the Post 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).

ThePost 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 pressuring neighboring jurisdictions to sweeten their taxpayer-funded incentives. While the Post reported on the bidding war it neglected to mention that Northrop Grumman was a client of the Breaux-Lott Leadership Group, which had formed a “strategic alliance” with Evans’ firm, Patton Boggs. (Patton Boggs – now Squire Patton Boggs – subsequently bought Breaux-Lott.) Northrop Grumman ended up in Falls Church, Va., possibly with a sweeter incentive package 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. 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.

ThePost 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 (including for a girlfriend) and tons of sports tickets. The Office of Campaign Finance found that Evans had broken 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.

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Pete Tucker is a journalist based in DC. He can be reached at his website.

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