A wealthy investment banker has donated $100,000 to D.C. Council member David A. Catania’s controversial private fund to help finance outside legal advice on education policy.
The contribution by Emanuel J. Friedman, a Kalorama resident who manages a multibillion-dollar investment fund, is the first to Catania’s effort. Friedman, 67, did not return calls seeking comment.
Friedman’s donation brings the fund a third of the way toward its goal of $300,000. The money would pay the Hogan Lovells law firm for work in support of the council’s Education Committee.
Catania (I-At Large) said he appreciated the financial support, adding that it will enable a review of “decades of municipal regulations and laws” that may be “barriers to schools and teachers.”
“It’s sensible to review, occasionally, the totality of our laws and regulations to make sure they are consistent with best practices,” Catania said.
The council occasionally seeks outside legal help, but such work is usually done pro bono or funded with tax dollars. But Catania, who took over as chairman of the Education Committee in January, has said that private funds would expedite the firm’s work by guaranteeing it as a priority.
The District’s ethics board has signed off on the arrangement as long as donors do not have business before the city and have “no expectation of special treatment from the District.”
But Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said he is unsure whether one council member should undertake such a broad effort to revise school reform. Among other changes, the 2007 legislation gave the mayor control over public schools.
“If we are going to be looking outside [for advice], we ought to be doing it together,” Gray said Tuesday, adding that he and Catania have yet to discuss education matters. “I think, [for] something of this magnitude that could have real policy implications for the city down the road, it would be good if we had some consistency how we are going to approach this, especially if we are going to spend this kind of money.”
But Catania noted that Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson also solicits private donations for city schools.
“I just think there are a number of items that have been left unattended to for the last 21/2 years, and the council is a separate branch of government,” Catania said. “While I appreciate the mayor’s point of view, he can tend to his work, and we can tend to ours.”
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said Monday that Catania did not brief him before crafting the private-donation plan. Mendelson said he’s supportive of the effort, even though some council members question whether they should have voted on the plan.
Catania, who is considering running for mayor next year, said he is hiring the international firm of Hogan Lovells to research school-reform efforts across the country. He then hopes to draft legislation to address performance standards, enrollment lotteries and the allotment of school resources. Maree Sneed, a partner at the law firm and a former principal in Montgomery County, is heading up the research.
Mary Levy, an education finance expert and city schools watchdog, agrees that it may be time to fine-tune or revise the District’s education policies. But Levy questions whether a law firm and private donors should lead the effort.
“I think it’s worthwhile getting expertise on legal questions, but in terms of education policy, I wouldn’t hire a law firm to do it,” Levy said. “So much research of this kind is funded by those with ideological purposes.”
Friedman is a co-founder of the Friedman Billings Ramsey Group, currently known as Arlington Asset Investment Corp. He left the firm in 2005 and now oversees EJF Capital LLC, an investment firm valued at $2.6 billion, according to Bloomberg News.
A former history and geography teacher, he has been linked to numerous local philanthropic endeavors. He has also donated to several local political campaigns, including three $1,000 donations to Catania’s campaigns since 2001.