A lawyer for D.C. Council member Jim Graham asked the city’s ethics board to drop its investigation of Graham’s role in a 2008 contracting controversy, arguing that the lawmaker saw no personal benefit from his actions and thus broke no conflict-of-interest rules.
Attorney William W. Taylor III spoke before the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability for an hour Friday afternoon, making the case that misconduct allegations that have already been the subject of an investigation by Metro’s board of directors do not implicate city ethics laws.
“It’s important that this board recognize the difference between controversy and unethical conduct,” he said.
The board went into private deliberations after questioning Taylor and did not rule on the matter Friday.
The probe surrounds comments Graham allegedly made in a May 2008 meeting held in his office with businessman Warren Williams Jr., his wife and their lobbyists. Graham (D-Ward 1) had previously clashed with Williams over a nightclub and rental housing he owned and publicly opposed his pursuit of the city’s lottery contract.
The Metro investigation concluded that Graham suggested in the private meeting that he would support the lottery bid if Warren Williams withdrew from a development project awarded by Metro, on whose board Graham served until 2011.
That suggestion, the investigation found, broke the Metro board’s conflict of interest rules by pitting his interests as a board member against his interests as a council member. But Taylor argued that those actions, if true, broke no District laws or regulations because Graham acted in his role as an elected official.
“Isn’t that exactly what he was supposed to do?” Taylor asked. “Isn’t that why he was there in the first place, because the City Council felt that it needed to have its own representative on the Metro board precisely to advocate for the interests of the City Council and the District of Columbia?”
But Taylor encountered some skepticism from the board’s three members. One, Laura M. Richards, asked him whether it was “appropriate to decide a contract before one body on the basis of a contract before another body.”
“I think if that’s what the public official believes is in the public interest, then it’s perfectly appropriate to do that,” he said.
Richards pressed Taylor to draw a line between what he characterized as “sharp-elbowed political activity” and an illegal conflict of interest. Taylor said the key issue was that Graham would have seen no personal benefit from the alleged quid pro quo.
“Whatever else once concludes about this, it’s clear that Jim Graham had no financial interest in this project, one way or the other,” he said.
Board Chairman Robert J. Spagnoletti questioned Taylor on why, if Graham had such grave objections to Williams, Graham could suggest he would support Williams getting the lottery contract, “where you’ve got a gazillion dollars going through in various ways.”
“It is very hard to see how . . . giving him the contract is not in the public interest for [Metro], but it’s okay for the District of Columbia,” Spagnoletti said. “Is that compromise permitted, in a back room where no one can see it?”
“Is it unethical?” Taylor responded.
“That’s what we’re asking,” Spagnoletti said.
Taylor did not stipulate that Graham had actually suggested any contract swap, challenging the fact-finding of the Metro report, performed by the law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham and Taft. Graham said in a deposition that he did not recall making any comments that could have been interpreted as a quid pro quo.
Were the board to proceed with the investigation, Taylor said, the board would have to interview witnesses and review documents independently.
“Certainly the facts would have a he-said, she-said quality to them,” he said.