WASHINGTON — A D.C. councilmember and mayoral candidate’s role in turning over a city-owned alley to George Washington University against community leaders’ wishes is the subject of a preliminary inquiry by the city’s ethics board, according to several people questioned by the board.
The four people told The Associated Press that they were questioned about whether Councilmember Jack Evans did anything inappropriate when he introduced a bill to give the university the alley without conditions.
One of the people interviewed, Jackson Carnes, said Evans told him he was not demanding that GWU reimburse the city for the alley, valued at $2.8 million, because he needed the university’s support for his mayoral bid. Carnes is an elected member of a neighborhood commission.
Carnes told AP he was interviewed last week by the general counsel for the city’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, which investigates allegations of wrongdoing by city officials and can punish councilmembers for violations. The interview occurred the day after The Northwest Current, a community newspaper, published a letter from Carnes in which he claimed that Evans traded the alley for GWU’s political support. However, it is not clear exactly what triggered the preliminary inquiry.
The council’s code of conduct bars members from using their public office for private gain.
Evans denied that he said anything to Carnes about needing GWU’s support for his mayoral bid.
“I’m unaware of the ethics board looking into anything, number one; and number two, the allegation you’re quoting to me is false,” Evans told the AP.
Barbara Kahlow, the other person present during the conversation between Carnes and Evans, was also interviewed by the ethics board, but she said that Evans never mentioned his campaign or GWU’s potential support for it.
Two other people who were present during a separate meeting between Carnes and Evans also told AP that they have been interviewed by BEGA staff. They spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid political reprisals.
The board’s director of government ethics, Darren Sobin, declined to comment. The board does not make its preliminary inquiries public, but it does disclose formal investigations once they are launched.
The council voted 12-0 to close the alley in July and turn it over to the school. Evans represents the ward that includes GWU, and the council tends to defer to the ward representative on such issues. Councilmember Mary Cheh, a GWU law professor, recused herself from the vote.
GWU plans to use the space to build new student housing. Community leaders had pushed for the university to help the city pay for a new entrance to the Foggy Bottom Metro station in exchange for the land.
Carnes, a GWU student, is a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, an elected body that deals with neighborhood issues, for the area that includes GWU. The commission passed a resolution in May calling on the council to place conditions on the alley closure, and Evans told the commission he would support its position, Carnes said.
After Evans introduced a bill that placed no conditions on the closure, Carnes said he confronted Evans outside of the councilmember’s office and that Evans became angry as he explained that he was giving GWU the alley because he needed its support for mayor.
A few weeks later, Evans had a heated discussion in his office with Carnes and two other ANC members. Evans asked GWU’s lobbyist to sit in on the meeting.
“He yelled at us for questioning his integrity,” Carnes said. “He just went ballistic.”
Carnes is supporting the mayoral bid of Evans’ colleague, Councilmember Muriel Bowser, and has done some volunteer work for her campaign, including knocking on doors.
The university is barred from endorsing or supporting political candidates.
“The university clearly understands its obligation under federal tax law not to participate in political campaigns,” GWU spokeswoman Candace Smith said in a statement. “GW strictly complies with this law and does not endorse political candidates or make contributions to political candidates.”
In addition to Evans, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson supported giving the alley to GWU without conditions. Mendelson said he felt it was premature to ask GWU to contribute to the Metro entrance when Metro doesn’t even have a capital plan to build it. He also said GWU was open to contributing to the Metro project if and when it is built.
First elected in 1991, Evans, a 59-year-old Democrat, is the longest-serving of the 13 councilmembers and one of three who are running for mayor. The others are Bowser and Tommy Wells, also Democrats. A favorite of the downtown business community, Evans counts the development of Verizon Center and Nationals Park and the revitalization of the 14th Street, Northwest, corridor among his signature achievements.
Evans has largely avoided the ethical questions that have clouded district government, but in 2005, The Washington Post revealed that he used a political action committee to pay for meals for constituents. Following the report, Evans shut down the PAC, and he did not face discipline. He has also spent more than $100,000 from his constituent-services fund on sports tickets, a practice that is permissible under district law but has been criticized by some of his colleagues.
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