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A Reckoning is Coming for Jack Evans, But What About the Washington Post?

DC’s longest-serving councilman is in trouble. With the U.S. Attorney’s Office and a federal grand jury investigating his suspect dealings, Jack Evans’ days as a top DC powerbroker are over. That conclusion seems inescapable now that Evans’ strongest ally, the Washington Post, is no longer shielding him.

For years the Post willfully ignored Evans’ repeated crossing of bright ethical lines. As chairman of DC’s powerful finance and revenue committee, a position he has held for two decades but may soon lose, Evans has played a central role in crafting deals involving several billion taxpayer dollars, including deals in which he had undisclosed conflicts of interest.

Despite salaries of around $140,000, among the nation’s highest for city councils, DC councilmembers are allowed to earn outside income. Evans has earned a lot of it over the years, primarily at powerhouse lobby firms. These side hustles haven’t always been isolated from his elected position. His dual hats – as legislator and hired hand – have led to conflicts of interest which are reminiscent of misconduct that led to jail time for others.

Yet over the years Evans had little to fear as the Post averted the gaze of readers and prosecutors alike. DC’s paper or record even appeared to sanction Evans’ conduct, while it pursued black officials over less serious allegations.

The Post’s get-out-of-jail-free card for Evans – who is white and represents wealthy Georgetown and downtown – is due in no small part to their shared love of gentrification. Nicknamed “Chocolate City,” DC was over 70 percent African American a few decades ago but is now less than half black. This rapid displacement has been accelerated by publicly subsidized mega-projects, like stadiums and high-end developments, which are Evans’ forte and enjoy the Post’s support.

From Big Firms to Big Trouble

For years Evans’ suspect dealmaking was partly obscured by the size and prestige of Patton Boggs, where he worked from 2001 to 2015. While Evans refused to say exactly what he did for Patton Boggs or who his clients were, the firm’s imprimatur conferred legitimacy on the arrangement.

Things went relatively smoothly for nearly 14 years. Then Patton Boggs merged with another firm (becoming Squire Patton Boggs) and by January 2015 Evans no longer had his cushy second job and its $190,000 salary. This may be the moment things started to unravel for Evans.

While Evans joined Manatt, Phelps & Phillips within the year, it was at a reduced (second) salary of $60,000. And there was another problem: Manatt presented an ethical landmine for Evans since, unlike Patton Boggs, the firm regularly lobbied the DC Council.

Evans arrived at Manatt shortly after a merger of two utility companies stalled. The DC Public Service Commission had recently blocked utility giant Exelon’s $6.8 billion takeover of Pepco, and Evans wasted little time inserting himself into the proceedings. In October 2015, the same month he started at Manatt, Evans was the first signatory to an official letter calling on commissioners to reverse course – which they subsequently did. What Evans failed to disclose was that Exelon and Pepco were both clients of his new employer. Now this matter appears to be part of the ongoing federal investigation. (I reported on this conflict of interest three years ago at HuffPost, but it wasn’t until last week that the Washington Post finally informed its readers of it.)

In late 2017 Evans quietly left Manatt as additional conflict of interest questions surrounded him. But before departing, Evans began freelancing for outside income. In July 2016 Evans and his lobbyist friend William Jarvis created their own firm, NSE Consulting LLC, registered at Evans’ Georgetown home.

No longer shielded by big firms, Evans’ suspect dealmaking created a paper trail not even the Post could ignore – at least not after Jeffrey Anderson of District Dig picked up on it.

Anderson’s reporting showed that in 2016 Evans went to great lengths on behalf of a digital sign company whose executives lavished him with favors, contributions, and possibly cash. Follow up reporting by the Post showed that the company, Digi Media, gave Evans, through his newly created personal firm, money and company stock, which Evans claims he promptly returned. Federal authorities are now investigating the matter.

Evans told council colleagues in a March 12 meeting, controversially held behind closed doors, that he would be closing down his private firm.

NSE Consulting isn’t the only thing that has landed Evans in the news of late. As part of his solo hustle for outside income, Evans shamelessly pitched his services to firms, even doing so via his chief of staff’s government email address, the Post reported earlier this month. “It was just a mistake, to be honest with you,” Evans told the paper. “And that’s it. In a hurry. Not thinking. You know?”

In his January 2018 pitch to the firm Nelson Mullins, which had lobbied Evans’ office, the councilman wrote:

“[DC’s] budget of over $14 billion is larger than 19 states… Overseeing all of this is the flattest political organization in the country. There are just 15 elected officials in the city: one mayor, 13 councilmembers, and one attorney general. A contract, bill, or regulation can go from idea to consummation in a matter of months.”

And for the right price Evans, calling himself “uniquely positioned,” was happy to help. To tout his value he cited none other than the Post: “If there were such a thing as a Vice Mayor, Jack Evans would be perfect for it.”

With the mayor and council chairman prohibited from seeking outside income, Evans is the top DC official available for hire – one of the few selling points left out of his pitch.

Included in his pitch was the name of Rusty Lindner, CEO of The Forge Co., the parent company for Colonial Parking. Formerly a client of Squire Patton Boggs, Colonial Parking and Lindner were now listed first by Evans among those he would solicit for business if Nelson Mullins hired him (which it didn’t).

This private solicitation might have been hard for Lindner to refuse, given how generous Evans had been with his public office. “For years, Evans’s Council office had served Lindner as one-stop shopping for networking and problem-solving,” District Dig reported.

Evans’ pitch to Nelson Mullins went on to highlight his long tenure as chairman of the finance and revenue committee (“I oversee all legislation related to taxes, financial incentives…”), as well as his chairmanship of WMATA, or Metro, the D.C. region’s subway and bus system.

Investigations

WMATA is now initiating its own investigation of Evans, and it’s not alone. DC’s Board of Ethics and Accountability launched an investigation in January, but suspended it, likely due to the federal inquiry. DC’s inspector general may be investigating as well. And several councilmembers are calling for a special council committee to look into Evans’ dealings.

Meanwhile, all DC councilmembers and Mayor Muriel Bowser received federal subpoenas for documents related to the Evans investigation. The subpoenas request documents going back to January 2014, which may indicate Evans’ suspect dealings prior to that date will get a pass.

That would be unfortunate. Evans’ conduct in office warrants a broader inquiry, one that examines all the major deals in which he played a key public role, to see if he also had a private interest.

In 2009, for instance, Evans pushed for $272 million in public subsidies for Marriott to build a hotel alongside the DC convention center. At the sole public hearing on the deal – which Evans co-chaired – he called for its speedy approval but failed to disclose that one of the major financing partners in the deal, ING, was a client of Patton Boggs, where Evans was then employed. Two days later Evans suddenly recused himself from voting on the matter, never filing an explanation for his recusal, as required by DC law. When the deal became ensnared in lawsuits Evans effectively un-recused himself. (The Post reported on this conflict of interest once online and not in print.)

Exelon, Digi Media, Colonial Parking, ING… These are likely just the tip of the iceberg. As Evans made clear in his pitch to firms, his services were for sale. So who bought them? What companies hired Evans’ firms so they could utilize his dual roles? What understandings did they come to with the councilman?

The Post

Standing in the way of a full investigation is the Post, which is trying to limit inquiries of Evans to the narrow slice of his misconduct the paper recently reported on.

Such an approach would be a disservice to District residents. It would also let the Postoff the hook, since the full Evans story can’t be told without implicating DC’s paper of record, which blessed Evans’ corruption by willfully turning a blind eye to it for years.

For a 2010 op-ed for the Post, I tried to write, “[I]f the Post breaks its silence regarding Mr. Evans’ conflicts of interest” he is unlikely to be reelected or remain finance and revenue chairman. But that line was edited out. While calling out Evans’ conflicts of interest was permitted – even if the Post didn’t do so itself – laying blame at the feet of the paper was not.

“You do have to wonder, what if the Posthad gotten on the story a decade ago,” Jim McElhatton told me last year. The former Washington Times journalist reported on Evans’ apparent 2004 lobbying for CareFirst, which was a client of Patton Boggs at the time. If the Post had followed up, “would Jack have even thought of doing what he did here [with Digi Media]? I don’t think so.”

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

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