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Bad to worse: Apology needed in ethics debate

As the D.C. government creaks under the weight of ethics accusations, internal bickering and rumors of potential action by outside authorities, Councilmember Jack Evans found himself ensnared publicly in two unfortunate and somewhat related ethics questions this week. The first concerned his recusal in the summer of 2009 from committee and Council votes on the almost $300 million in public money to help the construction of a convention center hotel to be operated by Marriott International, Inc. Evans, however, did not file the explanation for the recusal as required by District law at that time. This action, or lack of action, became the subject of a website and other public notices by John Hanrahan, a former Washington Post and Washington Star investigative reporter, as well as former Dupont Circle Citizens Association president Rob Halligan over the last few months. This past week, Post reporter Mike DeBonis asked Evans about the lack of explanation, which led Evans to produce a letter from David Zvenyach, General Counsel for the D.C. Council, for DeBonis and Alan Suderman, City Paper’s Loose Lips. Zvenyach said that there was no conflict because the Patton Boggs law firm, Evans’ employer outside the Council, did not represent Marriott. When DeBonis and Suderman noted that this absolving letter was written in April, 2011 and asked Evans why he had not released it sooner, Evans said, according to Suderman: "This is an opportunity I've been waiting for. To respond without responding directly to Hanrahan, who I think is a f… idiot." Ouch. Putting aside for the moment the use of invective against citizen leaders like Hanrahan and Halligan -- and another use of unnecessary profanity that insults standards of civil discourse -- many city leaders and observers are similarly, and deeply, concerned. The question of part-time Councilmembers having outside employment that leads to possible conflicts was discussed by Colbert I. King in his respected Saturday column in the Washington Post. King referred to an Evans complaint that “punishments for violating campaign disclosure requirements are too lenient,” namely that the $5,000 fine is just a “cost of doing business." Is this what public service in the District has come down to? As Councilmember Evans heads into campaign season with a new challenger, Fiona Greig, we strongly suggest that the 20-year veteran follow remedies suggested by King and start to remove the stain of what is becoming the “D.C. Council of Corruption,” according to the longtime Post columnist. Why not become the champion for real punishment for ethics law violations and for adequate staffing to enable our election board and other local enforcement agencies to be effective? (Meanwhile, King's recommendations include much stronger medicine.)

Perhaps more importantly, we call on our Councilmember, Jack Evans, to apologize to John Hanrahan. We understand the frustration of working in an ethically-challenged environment, where even baseless accusations may generate continuing, unwanted and -- sometimes undeserved -- attention. But this kind of language directed at a citizen who has worked with integrity on behalf of many citizens and community causes is beneath the dignity of the office. In this environment, the burden of proof is on Councilmembers to demonstrate their integrity -- even to go the extra mile -- repeatedly and patiently. Splattering the public discourse with profanity does no more than degrade an already difficult public discourse in which respectful, attentive engagement is critical. An apology is needed on behalf of you, the council and the citizens you represent.