Jack Evans is under ethics scrutiny for allegations of pay-to-play
By Jeffrey Anderson | Photograph by Andy DelGiudice
Jack Evans is the longest standing member of the D.C. Council, the perennial chair of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, and a fixture at pro sports games, black tie events and groundbreakings. Although the mayor’s seat always seemed to elude him, Mayor Muriel Bowser has dubbed him the “Mayor of Metro,” for his chairmanship of its board.
But for all his grip on power and influence, there’s one less flattering aspect of Evans’ persona that continues to mark his stature: He seems to float effortlessly above the strictures of government ethics.
In his latest episode, Evans is now being investigated by the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability for allegations of pay-to-play activity, District-style.
BEGA’s quarterly activity report states that a formal investigation is pending in response to an allegation “that an elected official took an action or participated in a decision that affected their (or an affiliated person’s) financial interest.” District officials confirm that Evans is that official.
The probe arises from a District Dig series, which reported that Evans introduced legislation in December 2016 to clear regulatory hurdles for a digital sign operator after facilitating an offer of a paid internship for his own son. A venture spearheaded by Don MacCord of Digi Outdoor Media to install advertising signs throughout D.C.’s commercial corridors had run afoul, and Evans, who also solicited contributions to Hillary Clinton and contributions to his own constituent services fund, had come to the rescue.
Despite intense lobbying by allies of Evans, a pipeline into Bowser’s office and tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to D.C. elected officials, Evans withdrew his bill for lack of votes. Bowser was then poised to use executive rulemaking to clear away the regulatory hurdles, but she too relented in early 2017 when MacCord’s sordid past reared its head.
Months later, in November last year, MacCord was indicted in federal court in Northern California on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and obstruction of an SEC investigation into an alleged scheme to defraud investors in his digital signs. That prosecution and a civil suit filed by the SEC in Washington state against MacCord and his chief operating officer Shannon Doyle are ongoing.
How MacCord’s representations to investors out west overlap with his efforts to install some 50 digital signs in 20 locations throughout the District is hard to tell. MacCord has denied any wrongdoing, and his ties to a related company that still is trying to install digital signs in D.C. have been dissolved, according to the related company. That company, Digi Media Communications, is in litigation with D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, and the fate of the entire venture is uncertain.
What is troubling is an email chain between MacCord and Evans and Evans’ chief of staff, Schannette Grant, previously reported by The Dig, that belies a chumminess with a guy who was using his substantial ties in D.C. to lure investors clear across the country in what federal prosecutors describe as a scheme that would make a forensic auditor blush.
MacCord through his attorney has declined to comment. Neither Evans nor Bowser have responded to repeated requests for comment.
Evans is well-known for catering to the interests of the business community, and has established a reputation bordering on caricature for blurring ethical lines with aplomb. He’s the kind of politician who spends constituent services funds on annual season tickets to professional sporting events and at good-old-boy watering holes, and he has drawn scrutiny before, to little or no avail. “Oh that’s Jack being Jack,” is a familiar refrain among observers of local politics.
But Evans’ closeness to MacCord, and the inclination of he and Bowser to pull every lever of power at their disposal to advance MacCord’s business interests, is a new low.
Public records show that over the last ten or so years, MacCord has left a trail of bad debt, tax liens, foreclosures, breached contracts, uncollected judgments and allegations in civil court of complex fraud schemes.
According to a 2010 lawsuit in King County Superior Court in Washington state, MacCord controlled a company that entered into a securities purchase agreement with investors who he misled in a “pattern of self-dealing and outright fraud” that led to his firing and ouster from the company’s board. He later settled the case without an admission of wrongdoing.
In a related case filed in federal court in Washington state, a different investor accused MacCord of securities fraud in connection with a business venture there that spilled over to D.C. The lawsuit states that MacCord, accustomed to driving luxury cars and living in a “grandiose estate,” misrepresented the regulatory landscape to investors and continued to claim revenue growth, even as he hit a roadblock and had to liquidate assets.
At one point, MacCord tried to convince the investor that his digital sign venture in D.C. could compensate for the failed endeavor in Washington state.
MacCord’s choice of D.C. as a staging ground to compensate those investors is cause for alarm. How Evans ended up so aligned with MacCord is unclear. It is clear, however, that the relationship was mutually beneficial.
After The Dig exposed MacCord’s offer to Evans’ college-aged son of a $20-per-hour internship with his company, Evans admitted to the Washington Post that an offer was made but said his son never took the internship after all. From the wording in its activity report, BEGA is focused on that aspect of the relationship more so than than the campaign and constituent services funds Evans solicited. But ethics experts are inclined to weigh the totality of the relationship.
“This is the classic style of influence-peddling for which Jack Abramoff was so famous,” said Craig Holman, ethics expert and Government Affairs Lobbyist for the nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog Public Citizen, after The Dig first reported the financial entanglements between Evans and MacCord.
But Evans is made of teflon. As chairman of the finance committee, he walked a fine line for years with his second job as a partner at Patton Boggs, a juggernaut law firm and lobbying shop. As early as 2003, the firm was hauling in the majority of the city’s lobbying fees despite Evans’ oversight of the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, which was handling the lobbying contract.
In 2004, he voted for a tax break to CareFirst, even after Patton Boggs identified him as a lobbyist for the health care company, according to a Washington Times story. (The firm claimed that the lobbying reports contained a clerical error.)
A 2016 story in the Huffington Post detailed numerous other questionable transactions involving Evans, even after he left Patton Boggs and moved to the equally influential Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. In those transactions, it again was unclear whether he was acting as a Councilmember or a lobbyist. (Sources say Evans is no longer with Manatt.)
The MacCord-Digi Outdoor Media matter is equally murky. Evans put his reputation on the line for a guy who was using the District in ways the Councilmember might not have fathomed. Was it naivete? Hopeful trust? Willful blindness?
With BEGA on the case, it’s likely that such questions will remain open. Evans could be sanctioned for taking official action that affected his financial interest, or he could skate by as he has in the past. Which might be cause to focus attention on Evans’ colleagues on the Council, who have talked a pretty big game this year about the need to clean up D.C.’s reputation.
Recently, The Dig went door-to-door in the Wilson Building and asked: “How do you feel about your colleague going to the well for an alleged fraud artist who sent money his way and offered his son a job?”
The results were disappointing, though not surprising. Most Council members would not comment. In sharp contrast to ethics experts, some rationalized the situation and speculated that in all likelihood there is nothing amiss.
There was one exception: The Dig was able to corner At-Large Councilmember David Grosso in an elevator, and he allowed that, “Obviously I have concerns. It’s really alarming.” That was several news cycles ago, and Grosso had nothing further to add this week.
A spokesman for Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who is spearheading a comprehensive campaign finance and ethics reform package through his chairmanship of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, said Allen is aware there is an issue but that he is looking at it through the lens of that broader initiative.
And At-Large Councilmember (and former “Loose Lips” columnist with Washington City Paper) Elissa Silverman says she does not see enough evidence of a quid pro quo between Evans and MacCord. “An ethics violation would be if [Evans] or his family profited from something he did through his public duties. And I don’t think it’s clear that he moved legislation to help a company.” When pressed, Silverman conceded that the Evans-MacCord relationship appears “unseemly,” and says, “It’s not what I would have done.”
Even if lawmakers are not concerned, one candidate hoping to oversee the Council this time next year is not about to stand down. Ed Lazere, the former executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute who is challenging Council Chairman Phil Mendelson for his seat, says that, “When a councilmember solicits gifts from a company and then works to help that company… it undermines faith that our leaders are fighting for D.C. residents. It feeds the notion that government is there just for the powerful, and it threatens the integrity of the entire D.C. Council.”