Witness Saw Jack Evans Accept Cash; Then He Returned Checks
By Jeffrey Anderson | Photograph By Andy DelGiudice
In August 2016, as a regulatory battle over digital advertising signs was heating up, Donald MacCord, founder of Digi Outdoor Media, which was promoting the disputed signs, delivered stacks of $100 bills in an envelope to Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans at Evans’ office in the Wilson Building, according to an observer who witnessed the exchange.
Dawn Gontkovic, a marketing specialist who socialized on numerous occasions with Evans when she was dating MacCord in the summer of 2016, says she and MacCord were sitting in his car outside the Wilson Building. “I saw cash, and I saw cash go into an envelope. Donald said it was $30,000 intended for Jack Evans. He was bragging about it. I didn’t know what it was for, and I asked why he didn’t just write a check. He said ‘No, it has to be cash.’”
Gontkovic says she and MacCord signed in at the Council office and were introduced to Evans’ chief of staff Schanette Grant. Once inside Evans’ office, says Gontkovic, “I saw [Donald] give the envelope to Jack.” (Gontkovic can’t recall whether Grant witnessed the exchange. In 2017, she alerted a lawyer for the firm MacCord had been associated with at the time of the exchange.)
It was not the only time MacCord visited Evans in his office, according to Gontkovic. A couple weeks later, she says, MacCord insisted on a stop at the Wilson Building as they and Gontkovic’s children were headed to the airport for a vacation at Sanders Beach Rentals in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. This time, however, MacCord had her wait in the car, she says. “Donald said he had to get something to Jack,” Gontkovic says. “I was so pissed off.”
Later that month, MacCord asked her to deliver a $30,000 check to Evans, says Gontkovic. “I refused to do it,” she says. “I thought that seemed weird. I said, ‘Why would you want me to do that?’ It seemed like an important task to be delegating to someone he was newly dating. He said he got [an associate] to do it.”
The relationship between Evans and MacCord has been a source of controversy since Evans introduced emergency legislation to the D.C. Council in December 2016 that would have cleared regulatory obstacles for MacCord and his former venture partner Digi Media Communications, which is being sued in D.C. Superior Court by Attorney General Karl Racine for installation of advertising signs that allegedly lacked the proper permits.
Emails obtained by District Dig through a Freedom of Information Act request show that a registered lobbyist for MacCord’s firm Digi Outdoor Media, Thorn Pozen, former campaign chairman for Mayor Muriel Bowser, drafted the legislation and coordinated talking points in a series of communications with Evans’ legislative committee director, Ruth Werner.
Neither Evans nor his staff returned a call, email or text from The Dig. Evans eventually withdrew the bill for lack of votes, throwing his support behind an effort by Bowser to enact emergency rulemaking that also would have allowed the digital signs to go forward. Bowser drafted but then pocketed the executive order after lawsuits and fraud allegations against MacCord emerged in early 2017.
By December 4, 2017, the SEC had 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. (Digi Media Communications says it is no longer associated with MacCord or Digi Outdoor Media and denies any knowledge of MacCord’s alleged investment scheme or his alleged cash payment to Evans.)
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. The civil case is on hold pending the outcome of the criminal case.
The intrigue was heightened earlier this year, in February, when The Dig obtained emails via FOIA request that showed MacCord offering Evans’ son a paid internship in July 2016, right around the same time MacCord’s regulatory woes were coming into focus, and shortly before Gontkovic says she saw MacCord hand the envelope of cash to Evans.
In April, The Dig discovered a limited liability company set up by Evans at his Georgetown home in July 2016 with his lawyer-lobbyist-developer pal Bill Jarvis serving as registered agent. Weeks after forming the company, Evans accepted two checks totaling $50,000 from Digi Media Communications to his newly established firm, NSE Consulting LLC. He described the payments to the Washington Post as a retainer for legal services, but said that he returned them to MacCord, a Digi Media board member at the time, in anticipation of regulatory roadblocks that might result in a conflict of interest. (Indeed, Racine sued the firm soon thereafter.)
The gathering of clouds has prompted a review by the Board of Government Ethics and Accountability, which in January launched a “formal investigation into allegations that an elected official took action or participated in a decision that affected their (or an affiliated person’s) financial interest,” according to its website. (The Dig confirmed that the probe pertains to Evans.)
On June 7, BEGA’s Director of Government Ethics Brent Wolfingbarger also informed the board that his staff has been seeking documents from the Council related to complaints that Evans has offered false statements on financial disclosure forms and violated rules regarding outside employment, City Paper’s Andrew Giambrone recently reported.
Meantime, campaign finance records show MacCord in relentless pursuit of legislative support for digital signs. At Evans’ request, MacCord and his associates made political contributions to a constituent services fund beginning in 2015, for instance. MacCord also bundled contributions for the Hillary For Victory Fund so he and Evans could attend an August 2016 fundraiser for Hillary Clinton in Nantucket.
According to Gontkovic, who was employed by Digi Outdoor Media at the time, and who accompanied MacCord on the trip, she and other employees were instructed to write $500 checks to the Victory Fund and were promised that MacCord would reimburse them later.
From 2016 into 2017, MacCord, Digi Outdoor Media, its principals, lobbyists and associates spread more than $20,000 in campaign contributions around the D.C. Council.
A review of Evans’ campaign and constituent services fund reports shows that he has only accepted two cash contributions over the years, and one cashier’s check.
The rare investigation of Evans, who revels in the image of a Georgetown Brahmin, has met with uncomfortable silence from his colleagues and tepid interest from the Post and other news outlets. Just last week, Evans appeared on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show co-hosted by semi-retired City Paper contributor Tom Sherwood for a wide-ranging interview that yielded no questions about MacCord or the BEGA investigation.
In May, Evans gave an exclusive interview to the Post’s Peter Jamison and Fenit Nirappil that produced as many questions as answers. Evans told the Post that he introduced the emergency legislation in December 2016 at the behest of David “The King” Wilmot. But Wilmot was not registered as a lobbyist for MacCord or any related entities, according to BEGA records.
Some of what Evans told the Post is incredulous to firsthand observers, and his aversion to transparency is disconcerting to others. “He’s not the poster boy,” says a Council colleague of Evans’ overall ethical posture.
Evans has ducked The Dig, but he told the Post he took Digi Media’s $50,000 as a retainer because he could always recuse himself later if a conflict of interest arose. Oddly enough though, he was the one who singularly introduced the legislation that would have eased the digital sign regulations.
Moreover, Evans has held second jobs at Patton Boggs and Manatt, Phelps & Phillips for years and he has rarely recused himself from legislative matters. He reported income from NSE Consulting of between $50,000 and $100,000 for 2016 but won’t say what the firm did or for whom. He did not report the existence of his firm on requisite financial disclosures for 2017.
Perhaps the strangest assertion that Evans made to the Post is that “I know Don [MacCord] but I don’t know him that well.”
MacCord has told The Dig that he and Evans go back decades. Paul Whitby, former general counsel for billboard company Van Wagner Communications, which employed MacCord in the early 2000s, recalls testifying before Evans in 2002 about legislation to provide guidelines for sign companies with competing interests.
Whitby says MacCord was ostentatious and “all over the lot,” but well-connected enough to set up a meeting with Evans. “I thought Evans was a straight shooter. I thought he could be the next mayor…Don [MacCord] on the other hand was driving a Hummer around town during a gas shortage.”
Told of the $50,000 payment from Digi Media to Evans’ LLC, Whitby replies, “That stinks.”
Emails from MacCord to Evans going back several years also convey a chumminess that contrasts with Evans’ characterization of the relationship. An August 26, 2014, email from MacCord to Evans (and Grant) says, “Jack, I hope you are doing well. Saw some old friends of ours the other Day Bob Pincus and Ron Paul and we were talking about the old days and it made me realize I had not brought you up to speed on our DC project.”
The claim that Evans does not known MacCord “that well” does not sound right to Gontkovic. She says Evans was atop the list of influential figures MacCord bragged about having relationships with as his company was installing digital signs throughout the District.
“We went to dinner with Jack several times, and Donald always paid,” she says, citing occasions at Cafe Milano, Fiola Mare and The Dabney. “I set Jack up with a girlfriend’s mother at Cafe Milano. He said she was too old for him.”
Gontkovic recalls a five-day trip to the Bahamas with MacCord that summer. “He was always on the phone with Jack,” she says.
Gontkovic says she and Evans remain Facebook friends. She showed The Dig a photo of her and Evans at the Nantucket fundraiser for Clinton. She says Evans invited her and MacCord to an ambassador’s house in Georgetown to hear Chelsea Clinton speak, and that they all attended fundraisers for other officials, sometimes hosted by Wilmot, who in 2017 finally registered as a lobbyist for Digi Media Communications.
Evans frequently was accompanied by Grant, his chief of staff, recalls Gontkovic. “She’s a fun girl. I’m still Facebook friends with her too. We have like 56 mutual ‘Friends.’”
MacCord and Evans spent a lot of time meeting with Wilmot and fellow lobbyist J.R. Meyers, she continues. “Donald was with [Evans] a lot. He acted like they were best friends. He would tell me that Jack was helping Digi by putting pressure on the mayor to approve his signs.”
In several interviews, Gontkovic describes vacations she took with MacCord, including a trip to Atlanta with Wilmot and Meyers and their spouses. Evans, MacCord and the lobbyists would entertain investors from out of town, she says, and Evans was a frequent guest of MacCord’s at Nationals’ games. In all, she says she accompanied MacCord on three separate occasions to see Evans at his office in August and September 2016.
In an email to one of Digi’s lawyers on June 28, 2017, Gontkovic, who also gave a sworn deposition on unrelated matters in MacCord’s divorce case, complained of harassment and wrote that MacCord has “paid cash to Jack Evans, David Wilmot and JR Meyers to help persuade city council members to vote in Digi’s favor.”
“[Donald] told me that he had to pay Wilmot $15k per month for his services and JR received $10k per month,” Gontkovic says in an email to The Dig. “He bragged about this and said it was a reduction in amount due to the lawsuit and that investors were freezing up money.”
Gontkovic says MacCord would describe Evans as his “longtime friend and business partner.” She says she no longer associates with MacCord, and that she was never that impressed by the dinners, the trips, the fundraisers and the trappings of political influence. “It never seemed to me the way you do business in politics,” she says. “None of it seems on the up and up.”
*This story has been updated to spell “Brahmin” with an “i” instead of an “a” so as to be more consistent with the intended meaning.