The Cost of Doing Business in the Nation’s Capital
By Jeffrey Anderson
In February 2015, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans instructed digital sign operator Don MacCord to contribute to his constituent services fund. MacCord was seeking Evans’ support for a plan to install digital signs in commercial corridors throughout the District.
MacCord had already updated the Ward 2 boss on the status of the project spearheaded by the company he founded, Digi Outdoor Media. “Jack, Thank you for your time today,” states an email on February 27, 2015. “We look forward to contributing and working with you going forward and well into the future. Also let me know if I can help with any issues that come up.”
“You can actually help with my constituent services fund. We are currently raising funds,” replied Evans, that same day, in an email obtained by District Dig through the Freedom of Information Act.. “We have raised $25,000 so far. We can raise up to $40,000. You can give a maximum of $500 per person or entity. Thanks. Jack”
Having received his instructions, MacCord replied, “I will get on this right away and expect us to work very hard at filling this out for your team.” In less than 10 minutes, Evans came back with more instructions: “Thanks. Contact Schannette. She is coordinating it. Thanks.” (Schannette Grant is Evans’ chief of staff.)
“Have a great weekend my friend and when you have some free time let’s grab dinner and talk about old time[sic],” said MacCord.
David Wilmot, a lawyer-lobbyist who was promoting the digital sign venture and who is known around the Wilson Building as “The King,” was the first to pony up, with a $500 contribution to Evans’ fund, on March 20, 2015. Two months later, on May 15, MacCord, Digi Outdoor Media CFO Shannon Doyle, and various entities they controlled kicked in another $6,000.
Over the next year and a half, MacCord, Wilmot, Doyle and their associates and investors delivered another $7,000 to Evans’ fund (most of it on the same day) in maximum individual contributions of $500, for a total of $13,000. In May 2016, the company began installing its digital signs on the facades and exteriors of buildings throughout the District. (Evans later returned four checks from the first batch of donations at the direction of the Office of Campaign Finance because they came from the same address in Snoqualmie, Washington, where Digi Outdoor Media, a Nevada corporation, maintained an office.)
“This is the classic style of influence-peddling for which Jack Abramoff was so famous,” says Craig Holman, ethics expert and Government Affairs Lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog agency. “Especially bundled contributions, in which executives and associates and their spouses all chip in the maximum individual amount and Digi Outdoor Media gets the credit. MacCord may be limited to a direct campaign contribution of $500, but when MacCord can facilitate $10,000 or more in bundled contributions, that buys influence.”
OCF defines bundling as “to forward or arrange to forward two or more contributions from one or more persons by a person who is not acting with actual authority as an agent or principal of a [fundraising] committee.” (Bundled contributions exceeding $10,000 at one time must be separately reported.)
Constituent services funds, according to the D.C. Code, are to be expended “only for an activity, service, or program which provides emergency, informational, charitable, scientific, educational, medical, or recreational services to the residents of the District of Columbia.” Allowable expenses include funeral arrangements, emergency housing, past due utility payments, community events, and food and refreshments.
Evans, the longest serving Councilmember and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, is an old hand. Known to court and be courted by business, he has walked a fine ethical line for years without any apparent consequences, other than a cynicism among government observers that it’s just “Jack being Jack.”
So no surprise that contribution and expenditure reports from his constituents services account show bundled contributions from individuals and companies seeking his support, and a comfort with spending that money as well. Evans’ filings are littered with small denomination expenditures at good old boy watering holes such as Old Ebbitt Grill and Boss Shepherd’s, and large denomination expenditures for season tickets to the Washington Wizards, Capitals and Nationals, where he hosts constituents, lobbyists and corporate types alike.
The MacCord-Digi Outdoor Media contributions have even broader implications. MacCord did other things to curry favor with Evans. As The Dig has reported, MacCord also helped Evans bundle more than $50,000 in campaign contributions so that the two could attend a Nantucket fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, billed as “A Conversation With Hillary” in August 2016. (A substantial portion of that haul came from developers, cronies and political operatives with close ties to Mayor Muriel Bowser.)
That same month, Evans facilitated through his Council office an offer from Digi Outdoor Media of a $20/per hour internship for his son, which was communicated by MacCord through channels to Evans.
Evans and his staff have declined to respond to questions from The Dig. In an interview with The Washington Post, which followed The Dig’s story about the job offer to Evans’ son, Evans claimed that his son never took the job, and that he represents his constituents “very well,” adding, “You get contacted by people all the time.”
Indeed he does. In August 2016, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs issued stop work orders on the digital signs that MacCord had installed. That December, Evans introduced an “emergency bill” to the D.C. Council that figured to clear those regulatory hurdles for Digi Outdoor Media, which by then included a restraining order, temporary injunction, and request for permanent injunction by the Office of the Attorney General, which alleges that the signs lacked the proper permits.
Evans pulled his bill for lack of votes, which was not for lack of trying. MacCord, Wilmot, and J.R. Meyers, lobbyist for Digi Outdoor Media, worked the Wilson Building as they and their associates spread thousands of dollars in campaign and constituent services contributions throughout the D.C. Council.
After Evans pulled his “emergency legislation,” Wilmot registered as a lobbyist for a related entity as Bowser crafted an executive order that would accomplish the same goals as Evans’ emergency legislation. Bowser had the order ready to go though sensing unwanted scrutiny perhaps, she too abandoned the cause.
Good thing. Because in December, the Evans-MacCord relationship became more worrisome. The Securities and Exchange Commission filed a fraud complaint against MacCord, Doyle and Digi Outdoor Media in U.S. District Court in Washington State alleging that they bilked west coast investors with false promises of digital sign opportunities in D.C. Federal prosecutors in San Francisco indicted MacCord and Doyle in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California the same day on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, obstruction of justice, and falsification of records in the SEC investigation.
Ethics experts expect further investigation. Said Tyler Cole, Legislative Director and Policy Counsel for Issue One, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates for political reform and government ethics: “Definitely one of the most nefarious aspects of the American money and politics system is those seeking to do business with the government contributing to politicians who make decisions that affect those donors’ financial interest.”
Headline photo of the previously registered address of Digi Outdoor Media, 812 6th Street NE. Photo by Andy DelGiudice