The D.C. Council voted 11 to 2 on Monday to reprimand gay Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) on grounds that he violated a Council ethics rule in 2008 by improperly intervening in a contract approval process.
In a separate action, the Council voted 10 to 2, with one member voting “present,” to strip Graham of his committee responsibilities over the city’s alcoholic beverage regulatory agency and liquor law policy.
The reprimand and sanction against Graham’s committee responsibilities were approved in the form of separate resolutions introduced by Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large). Mendelson argued that action against Graham was needed to maintain the confidence of the pubic in the “integrity” the Council and the city government.
“It is time to move on,” Graham said in a statement released after the Council session adjourned.
“I have very important responsibilities as chairman of the human services committee and all the responsibility of representing Ward 1,” he said. “Going forward, I will continue to represent the people who elected me to serve with the same passion and fervor as I have from my first day in office.”
Graham and Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) were the only two of the 13 Council members to vote against the two resolutions. Council member Vincent Orange (D-At-Large) voted for the reprimand resolution but voted “present,” which is considered a form of abstention, on the resolution taking away Graham’s committee duties on liquor law matters.
Rick Rosendall, president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, who attended Monday’s Council session, said he is uncertain whether the Council’s action and the ethics board opinion that Graham violated city ethics rules would have a harmful impact on Graham’s longtime support from LGBT voters.
“This is not about LGBT issues,” Rosendall said. “Jim has been a strong and committed ally on that.”
Rosendall, as did Mendelson, also noted that the ethics related allegations against Graham do not involve a breach in the city’s criminal laws and no one has accused Graham of such an allegation.
Some political observers note that Council member David Grosso (I-At-Large), who defeated incumbent Council member Michael Brown (I-At-Large) last November following a campaign that attacked Brown on ethics related issues, won in nearly all of the city’s precincts with large numbers of LGBT residents.
At Monday’s Council session, Grosso said he would favor more stringent sanctions against Graham, noting that large numbers of his constituents urged him to push for a censure rather than a reprimand against Graham.
Graham has been highly popular in Ward 1, where he has been credited with playing a key role in improving neighborhoods and boosting economic development, especially in the Columbia Heights neighborhood that has become one of the city’s popular retail and entertainment centers.
The Council’s vote for the reprimand and committee sanction came after a 40 minute debate in which Barry, a former D.C. mayor, was the only member to speak against the two resolutions.
“I’m arguing that Jim Graham has not been given due process,” Barry said, adding that he believes Graham was denied his constitutional right of due process under the law because both the Council and the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability didn’t hold hearings to allow Graham to dispute the allegations against him.
Mendelson and Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), a law professor at George Washington University Law School, disputed Barry’s argument, saying Graham was given an opportunity to present his case against the allegations during deliberations of three separate entities that have investigated the allegations.
Mendelson said he was prompted to introduce the reprimand and committee sanction resolutions after the ethics board issued an opinion saying it found a “substantial body of evidence” that Graham violated the code of conduct for a city employee or official in connection with the contracting matter.
He noted that the ethics board, an investigation conducted by a private law firm on behalf of the Metro Transit board, and the city’s Inspector General each looked into the matter.
All three entities concluded that Graham acted improperly by allegedly attempting to pressure businessman Warren Williams into withdrawing a bid for a Metro land development contract in exchange for Graham’s support for Williams receiving a D.C. lottery contract.
Graham has denied interfering with the contract approval process. He has said he favored awarding the Metro contract to a competing businessman, but has said he did so because the other businessman’s company was better qualified to carry out the terms of the contract.
Through his attorneys, Graham last week filed a lawsuit against the ethics board on grounds that it violated the city law that created it by issuing an opinion on Graham’s case without holding a hearing in which Graham had the opportunity to contest the allegations and evidence used against him.
Graham told his colleagues during the Council session Monday that he plans to move forward with his lawsuit but hopes to continue working amicably with them on future Council business.
Although he declined Mendelson’s offer to allow him to speak on the reprimand resolution before the Council voted on it, Graham spoke at considerable length on the resolution calling for taking away his committee responsibilities on liquor law matters.
Saying he is “very proud” of what he and his committee have done to improve the city’s laws regulating bars, nightclubs, and restaurants, he urged his colleagues not to strip him of those responsibilities.
“There is no relationship between my reprimand and the role I play on these committee issues,” he said.
Mendelson told the Blade after the Council session ended that there was “no question” that the decision to strip Graham of his liquor law responsibilities was a form of “punishment” linked to the reprimand.
“It’s a diminishment of his committee responsibilities and goes with the reprimand,” he said. “That’s why they were both on the agenda today.”
Gay Council member David Catania (I-At-Large), who voted for both the reprimand and the committee sanction but didn’t speak during the Council debate, told the Blade following the Council session that he strongly disagrees with Graham and Barry’s claim that Graham was denied due process rights.
“I thought that was nonsense,” said Catania. “This is a disciplinary proceeding, not a criminal justice proceeding. And the notion of a lack of due process is laughable,” he said.
“Candidly, I think this whole thing could have been handled much differently at the onset if Mr. Graham would have acknowledged that, in hindsight, he perhaps was a little over zealous and perhaps went too far [in the contract matter] and apologized,” Catania said. ‘He’s been defiant all along. Had he apologized two years ago we might not be here today.”