In the summer of 2016, Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans facilitated a paid internship for his college-aged son with Digi Outdoor Media, a firm that was promoting digital sign advertising in the District. The firm’s founder, Don MacCord, was the face of a venture that was installing more than fifty digital signs at eight locations throughout commercial corridors in Washington, D.C.
The project hit a snag when the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) began issuing stop-work orders alleging a lack of proper sign permits. With the venture valued at $800 million over five to seven years, MacCord needed a way around those enforcement efforts.
Evans was the man. Emails obtained by District Dig through the Freedom of Information Act detail communications between Evans and his chief of staff Schannette Grant, and MacCord and officers of Digi Outdoor Media, that demonstrate an unsettling closeness.
Within months of DCRA showing up, Evans introduced legislation that would benefit Digi Outdoor Media, the same venture that handed his son the paid summer job he and his staff had facilitated.
Evans wields enormous influence as the D.C. Council’s longest standing member and chair of the Committee on Finance and Revenue. A paid internship for his son John was not the only inducement. Communications from January-September 2016 show MacCord courting Evans and Grant — who travels with Evans on business — with dinner and special event invitations, and Evans hitting up MacCord for contributions to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign so he could attend a fundraiser in Nantucket.
The communications are chummy at times, business-like at others. One thing is clear: After DCRA began issuing stop-work orders, and MacCord’s digital sign venture was in jeopardy, Evans was in a position to come to MacCord’s aid — and he did.
Evans was apprised of Digi Outdoor Media’s ambitions in early 2016. A January 31, 2016, email from MacCord to Evans and Grant begins,
“Schannette, I hope you are doing well and I will see you guys at your event this week. We have finally completed our sign order and our financing is in place and our guys want to come in on Wednesday and say thank you. Can you please see if Jack has any availability. We are meeting with Mr. [Vincent] Orange at 11:00 for and hour. Thank you for everything and we look forward to your great event this week. Best Regards, Donald MacCord CEO Digi Outdoor Media Inc.”
Evans’ office regarded MacCord warmly. An email from Grant to MacCord, dated February 27, 2016, thanks him for inviting her and Evans to a celebration dinner: “Happy Saturday Don, Sorry I missed your email. Jack and I went to Cuba last week and both came back a bit under the weather. I have been home since Wednesday and am finally coming up for air. I hate that we missed your dinner but THAN [sic] YOU VERY MUCH for inviting us. See you soon. S”
“Jack and Schannette, Sorry we missed you and I hope your trip to Cuba was fantastic,” MacCord replies, on March 1, 2016. “Let’s catch up in the near future and Jack remember we would love to have your son as and [sic] intern this year with Digi. Our new office at 64 NY Ave will be completed first of June and we are ready to have a great year. Jack [sic] son would be a great addition to the team. Warmest Regards,”
Two months later, as digital sign installation gets underway, MacCord reiterates the offer: “Jack, I hope you are doing well. David [Wilmot] just let us know about the [Washington Tennis Education Foundation] ball this Friday and we jump [sic] a table and would love to have anyone from your office come. We have 3 avaiable [sic] seats and just let us know if you guys or your team is interested. On another note please let me know if your son is still interested in interning this summer. We have set aside a spot for him and think he would be a great addition to our marketing and creative team. Warmest Regards,”
Emails between Evans (and Grant) and MacCord fly back and forth later that month with the subject line “Internship for your son.” On May 24, MacCord writes,
“Jack, I recieved [sic] your voicemail while on the plane to Hong Kong. Can you [sic] son and I catch up early next week to discuss his internship and get him moving with Digi. We are very excited to have him on board and think his abilities are going to be a great fit for our art department. Best Regards,”
MacCord then emails Evans on June 6 about meeting with the younger Evans, a student at the University of Pennsylvania: “Jack and Schannette, Let me know what works for you guys this week. I look forward to meeting Jack’s son and this is a top priority on my calendar. I am not traveling this week and we are ready to meet when it works for you guys. Best Regards,”
The emails indicate that Evans’ son met with Digi Outdoor Media on June 10. Greg Miller, the firm’s chief operating officer, emails him an offer letter on June 17 and copies MacCord, who promptly notifies Evans and Grant of the offer. The letter, addressed to John Evans at his father’s home address, informs him that he will start as a Marketing Intern earning $20 per hour based on a 40-hour week, and that he should report for the two-month internship on June 27, to work through September 1.
Meredith McGehee, executive director at Issue One, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that focuses on political reform and government ethics, believes the internship offer to be “wholly unethical. Giving jobs to the children of public officials is a clear example of trying to figure out what it takes to get on that politician’s radar. This is where the rubber meets the road.”
Government affairs lobbyist Craig Holman of the non-profit watchdog group Public Citizen says the Evans-MacCord relationship typifies what many other cities have fought against: a culture of businesses expecting to offer something of value to elected officials whose support they seek. “Dozens of local jurisdictions and 15 states have passed anti pay-to-play laws to deal with their own corruption abuses,” Holman says, “but so far not D.C.”
Evans did not return calls for this story.
By August 2016, DCRA had begun enforcing digital sign regulations, but installation continued. “Hi Barbara,” writes Tom Lipinsky, Evans’ former spokesman, to Barbara Richardson at WMATA, copying Evans, on August 18, 2016:
“Please allow me to introduce Don MacCord and Greg Miller from Digi Outdoor Media. They are doing installation work on the Homer and Woodies Buildings around the Metro Center station and are hoping to get in touch with the right person at Metro to access the station entrances overnight to help complete their work on the buildings. They’ll be able to better explain exactly the work they’ll be doing to determine who is the best contact.”
Failure to heed DCRA’s regulatory authority prompted D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine to seek an injunction against the firm Digi Outdoor Media had contracted with. (Digi Media Communications LLC, is registered in Delaware, and through a spokesperson says it no longer has anything to do with Digi Outdoor Media or MacCord, who for a time served on its board.)
Yet MacCord still had an ally in Evans. Emails show the veteran lawmaker directing MacCord to round up contributions to the Hillary for Victory Fund, so that the two could attend a fundraiser and “Conversation with Hillary Clinton” in Nantucket on August 20, 2016. “Don, Please forward any addition [sic] attendees and follow the directions,” Evans writes. “Don – please see the email below,” he persists, on August 31, forwarding an email from the Clinton campaign titled “Action Required.”
“Is it possible to for [sic] the attached document to the individuals listed below so they can submit the form to the Clinton campaign. I am copying Leo Liu who is coordinating this effort on behalf of the campaign. Thanks”
MacCord jumps into action.
In a flurry of emails MacCord then gathers a half dozen $2,700 checks from Digi Outdoor Media principals and associates and forwards them to Evans and Grant. (Eventually, Evans bundled more than $50,000 for Clinton from MacCord and his associates, and developers with ties to Mayor Muriel Bowser.)
Evans wasn’t the only elected official MacCord and his associates courted. Campaign finance records show them spreading campaign cash all around the Council, as lobbyists David Wilmot and J.R. Meyers worked the halls of the Wilson Building. Meyers, a member of Bowser’s inner circle, began lobbying Evans on September 19, 2016, on behalf of Digi Outdoor Media, according to an activity report he filed with the Board of Ethics and Government Affairs, to discuss “legislation.”
Meantime, campaign cash from MacCord, Digi Outdoor Media, and the firm’s executives, associates, investors, and related entities flowed. According to reports filed with the Office of Campaign Finance, the same list of contributors to the Clinton campaign, along with Digi Outdoor Media and its related entities, put more than $20,000 into the campaign and constituent service funds of D.C. Councilmembers.
It was time for Evans to make a move. In late November, he introduced emergency legislation that would allow digital sign installation to continue, regardless of what DCRA or Racine had to say about it.
Wilmot and Meyers got to work. It was not widely known that Wilmot represented Digi Media Communications. MacCord was the face of the franchise. At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman says she met with MacCord and Meyers on behalf of Digi Outdoor Media on November 28, 2016, to discuss Evans’ emergency legislation. Though Wilmot, who was not registered as a lobbyist for either firm at the time, arranged the meeting, Silverman says she was unaware of Digi Media Communications.
Meyers’ lobbyist activity report says that from December 2-6, 2016, he met with Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, Evans’ Ward 2 staffer, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, then-Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander, and At-large Councilmember Robert White. (Mendelson’s office says he actually met with Wilmot, not Meyers, for a half hour on Dec. 2.)
White recalls that Wilmot came by his office on behalf of Digi Media Communications along with Meyers on December 5, 2016, though it was unclear who Meyers represented. They lobbied for approval of the digital signs, White’s office says, and Wilmot did most of the talking.
Alexander says she went to Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House with Wilmot and Meyers (though she can’t recall the exact date) and that they discussed legislation regarding digital signs near the Verizon Center. She does not recall there being two companies involved in the discussion.
The lobbying push and campaign contributions were not enough, however, and Evans pulled his legislation at the last minute for lack of the supermajority of votes he needed to get around DCRA’s permit regs.
After Evans pulled his legislation, he punted to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office to fashion an executive rule change that would serve the same purpose.
MacCord and firms and individuals with ties to Digi Outdoor Media kept contributing to Councilmembers, and the lobbying continued. Nadeau, through her spokesman, says she met with MacCord (identified on her calendar as “Digi President”), Meyers and Wilmot on December 15, 2016, to discuss “pending sign regulations.”
By 2017, Meyers’ lobbying activity on behalf of Digi Outdoor Media had dried up, just as Wilmot finally registered as a lobbyist and began documenting his activities on behalf of Digi Media Communications, listed at the same address as Digi Outdoor Media—where John Evans was to report for his summer internship. (The Dig was unable to confirm details of the younger Evans’ internship.)
From January through March 2017, Wilmot contacted all but two Councilmembers about rulemaking for digital signs. Bowser had a draft version ready to go but abruptly tabled the idea without explanation.
By then, Evans and MacCord had exemplified a culture in which corporate and business interests are conditioned to grease palms and bestow favors on elected officials if they hope to do business in D.C. “That’s how it’s done,” Meredith McGehee says. “D.C. has had a reputation since its economic renaissance that if you bring the right money to the right people, if you play your cards right, you get rewarded.”
Despite walking away empty-handed on the digital signs, MacCord seemed to have felt that he had some good will left with Evans, and was still pitching ideas into the summer of 2017. “Jack, I have developed and pattented [sic] the only digital advertising railcar in the world,” he writes to Evans last July 12:
“We are rolling out the first one in Seattle in the next 120 days. This could generate very significant revenue for the system. Do you think we should present this now or wait to put it in the bid process next year? Look forward to your feedback. Hope you are doing well and let’s grab some dinner and catch up. Best Regards,”
Whether that dinner ever occurred is left to the imagination. On December 4, the SEC filed a complaint against Digi Outdoor Media, MacCord and CFO Shannon Doyle in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington State, alleging that they defrauded investors with false promises of leased space in D.C. that could be used to install digital signs for commercial advertising. Those leases do not exist, according to the SEC, which alleged that MacCord and Doyle raised $4.5 million from investors and peeled off $2 million for themselves, including $1.6 million for MacCord’s rent and utilities at a Southern California mansion, private schools for his children, luxury cars and vacations. A related criminal indictment in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, filed the same day, accuses MacCord and Doyle of conspiracy to commit fraud and obstruction of justice.
Authorities in both cases declined to comment. MacCord’s lawyer declined to comment.
McGehee says the MacCord-Evans dynamic is rampant at the local level in too many states. “It’s not just access and influence, it’s undue influence.”
Civic-minded observers are repulsed.
“The cozy relationship between Evans and Digi exemplifies all that is wrong in our pay-to-play culture,” says Meg Maguire, Vice Chair of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a non-profit that advocates for responsible planning, preservation and land use in Washington, D.C. “Evans should be defending our city from Digi’s illegal assault on our city’s beauty with their nuisance digital billboard advertising, not promoting it.
“Why would anyone want their son to work for such a sleazy outfit anyway?