D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray is expected to announce his candidacy for mayor of the nation's capital this afternoon, in the midst of a legal dispute that hints at his impatience with city regulations and persistent requests by city officials that he comply with the law.
The long-assumed challenger to the incumbent, Adrian M. Fenty, will kick off his campaign in unorthodox style by inviting the city to fine him $300 a day for each day he continues to fail to file an application for a 6-foot-high aluminum fence he built around his home last summer without a permit.
Mr. Gray has been a staunch opponent of Mr. Fenty's, whom he has criticized for hoarding baseball tickets, showing a lack of restraint in availing himself of the trappings of office, and rewarding his friends with lucrative city contracts.
Late last year, however, Mr. Gray came under scrutiny by city officials for allowing a mega-developer and close personal friend to oversee unauthorized renovations at his $667,000 home in the Hillcrest section of Southeast Washington.
On Friday, Lamont Regester, the chief inspector for the D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT), wrote to Mr. Gray to inform him the city would soon begin fining him $300 a day after months of futile requests from various city officials that he file a permit application for the fence and retaining wall he had built in the public space.
D.C. law requires a permit be issued after a hearing before the Public Space Committee for fences more than 42 inches high. Mr. Gray's fence, which surrounds his 12,000-square-foot corner lot, measures 72 inches high.
"You were given seven days [from May 4] to provide a copy of your permits, apply for the appropriate permits, or remove the violation," wrote Mr. Regester. "To date, DDOT has not received a response from you. Consequently, beginning Monday, March 29, 2010, DDOT will begin issuing $300 daily fines."
Though DDOT originally threatened to take action as early as May 11, no fines have been imposed, said John Lisle, a spokesman for DDOT.
On Monday, Mr. Gray's office disputed the premise of the most recent warning from DDOT.
"Mr. Gray's attorney turned over all required documents on March 11," said communications director Doxie McCoy. "All other statements are false. We don't know why there'd be any fines."
In response, Mr. Lisle said in e-mail: "We have not received a formal response to the March 4 letter and we do not have a record of any permit application in our system."
But, he added in a second e-mail message, "because there is some confusion about whether the appropriate documents were filed or not, we will not begin assessing fines until we're able to sort out exactly what happened. We would extend the same courtesy to any other applicant."
Mr. Gray is represented by former D.C. Attorney General Robert J. Spagnoletti, who did not return a call for comment.
The Washington Times first reported on the fence in the wake of revelations that Mr. Gray had hired developer W. Christopher Smith Jr. to put together a home renovation plan and perform minor repairs on his house last summer.
First Mr. Gray denied that Mr. Smith had anything to do with the work, then produced receipts to show he paid for it. Then he said he never voted on city business concerning Mr. Smith's company. But city records show Mr. Gray has voted on at least one project being handled by Mr. Smith's construction and development firms, which control more than $300 million in projects east of the Anacostia River in Mr. Gray's ward.
When the issue of a new fence and retaining wall later surfaced, city officials asked Mr. Gray to respond. But after three months of written requests did not resolve the matter, Mr. Gray's case caught the attention of the city's top lawyer.
On Monday, D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said, "I'm mystified why we can't get this matter resolved."
Also on Monday, D.C. lawmakers and staff had muted reaction to the controversy. Some dismissed it outright.
Council member Mary Cheh, a law professor at George Washington University and an ally of Mr. Gray's, claimed ignorance of the law. "I should be more informed," she said, noting that she was not familiar with the building codes. "I'm thinking about replacing my fence. Now I see that I'll be applying for a permit."
Council member Harry Thomas Jr., another Gray ally, called the fence permit "a very technical issue that can be worked out." Asked whether the city has been lenient with Mr. Gray until now, he replied, "No. If anything, we get held to a higher standard."
A spokesman for Council member Jim Graham, also a Fenty ally, both downplayed the matter and acknowledged that the process has dragged on. "It doesn't strike me as anything out of the ordinary. I don't think DDOT's findings are correct. Maybe that's why they are slow-walking this."
A recent Clarus Research Group poll showed Mr. Gray leading Mr. Fenty in popularity.