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D.C. Council member’s office lease actions raise questions

Alexander legislation might have benefited her landlord

- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2011

Yvette Alexander has stood alone in recent years among the District's 13 council members in her decision to pay for a constituent services office in Southeast - an office that by law the city government is required to provide free of charge to any member who requests it.

Ms. Alexander quietly shuttered the office after her telephone was cut off for an unpaid $5,388 bill, The Washington Times reported last week. The Ward 7 Democrat also acknowledged difficulty in paying rent on the space, a condominium near the intersection of Pennsylvania and Minnesota avenues.

Further complicating matters, D.C. Council records show, Ms. Alexander introduced legislation in 2009 that would allow the city to seize and redevelop numerous properties immediately surrounding the building that houses her office - a deal that would appear to benefit her landlord, H.R. Crawford, a former D.C. council member.

Campaign finance and constituent service fund reports show Ms. Alexander paid $49,200 to Mr. Crawford's real estate company from April 2007 to Nov. 3. The lease with Mr. Crawford, a property manager and developer who does a considerable amount of business with the city, was terminated in January.

Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer with the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said if an official is doing favors for an individual or company and receiving discounted rent, then "at the very least there is an appearance of a conflict of interest."

Mr. Ryan, who directs the Campaign Legal Center's Federal Election Commission Program and represents the group before the FEC, stopped short of suggesting that any crime had occurred in the lease arrangement, but said, "That's why we have laws to prevent certain gifts, because it can look like a bribe."

According to the records, Ms. Alexander rarely made regular monthly payments, frequently paying two or three months late in lump sums from her campaign fund and her constituent services fund - at one point making payments from both accounts in the same month.

The records show she failed to make a single payment for five months at the beginning of 2009. She finally made two payments, totaling $5,950 from her constituent services and campaign funds, three days apart in May 2009.

Two months later, in July 2009, she introduced a bill calling for the city to exercise its eminent domain power to acquire and redevelop "dilapidated and deteriorated" buildings in the area of Pennsylvania and Minnesota avenues in Southeast. The bill specified acquisition of properties on both sides of her office for the "revitalization of a distressed community."

Ms. Alexander withdrew the bill in February 2010, but her office declined to say why. Council Secretary Nyasha Smith, a former Alexander aide, said the bill was not reintroduced and she was unsure whether there were any plans to redevelop that block.

Ms. Alexander, who won office in a special election in 2007 and was re-elected in a general election in 2008, said in an interview last week that she was never more than "two or three months" behind in her rent. She did not respond to numerous calls and e-mails seeking more detailed information about her lease arrangement with Mr. Crawford.

Mr. Crawford denied that he stood to gain from the legislation she introduced, but he confirmed Ms. Alexander's troubles paying the rent.

In October, the late rent payments had accumulated to the point where Mr. Crawford's attorney sent a letter to her constituent services office at 2524 Pennsylvania Ave. demanding payment, according to multiple sources with firsthand knowledge of the matter. The Times requested a copy of the letter from Ms. Alexander, but her office declined to disclose it.

Mr. Crawford also declined to discuss the details of the letter, but acknowledged that several months' rent remains unpaid. "I don't want to jeopardize anything for anyone," he said. "I have to work with these folks."

Because the amounts Ms. Alexander reported to the D.C. office of campaign finance are so random, it is unclear whether and how much she owed Mr. Crawford when she introduced the eminent domain legislation. Equally unclear is whether Mr. Crawford assessed late fees for Ms. Alexander's failure to pay rent on time.

Adding to the confusion over what Ms. Alexander owed Mr. Crawford, both she and he acknowledged that at some point Mr. Crawford reduced the rent. Initially $1,200 per month, Ms. Alexander said Mr. Crawford later reduced it to $950. In collecting the rent, Ms. Alexander said Mr. Crawford had been "amenable" to the demands of her constituency, who include some of the poorest residents in the District.

Mr. Crawford told The Times that he reduced the rent not based on market value but because he cares about the community. He also noted he used the same condominium for his own campaigns and constituent services office.

But the rent reduction raises additional questions.

D.C. law says a contribution of goods, services or property offered at less than the usual and normal charge are in-kind contributions to be valued at fair market value. Such contributions are subject to limits and must be reported and itemized.

When asked to confirm details of the lease arrangement, Mr. Crawford said the file contained only two unsigned leases: one for the time Ms. Alexander rented the condominium for campaign purposes and the other with the "reduced rent" for times she rented the space for constituent services.

"You have to have separate leases because they are paid through separate accounts," he said.

In 2007, from April to June, Ms. Alexander paid the rent from her campaign account, campaign finance records show. From September to the end of that year, she paid the rent from her constituent services account. In March 2008, she initiated a series of five payments from her campaign account spaced out until the end of that year. In 2009, she didn't pay rent until May, and then her payments came from her constituent services account, with one overlapping payment from her campaign account.

Payments continued sporadically through most of 2010, the records show.

The last rent payment is for $2,850 on Nov. 3, according to Ms. Alexander's most recent constituent services expenditure report, filed the day after The Times raised questions about her lease arrangements with Mr. Crawford and her delinquent phone bill.

That bill was still unpaid as of Friday afternoon, and the campaign finance office's general legal counsel plans to hold an informal hearing to address Ms. Alexander's delayed filing of her constituent services fund report, which was due Jan. 1.

Ms. Alexander is the only D.C. Council member who has maintained a privately leased office to provide services to her constituents, whom she said often have trouble paying their own bills. Ward 8 Democrat Marion Barry and Ward 1 Democrat Jim Graham maintain rent-free office space provided by the District in city-owned buildings.

As for Ms. Alexander's silence on the lease arrangement or her introduction of the eminent domain legislation, Mr. Ryan said, "Why not give the details? It's a public office. What are they trying to hide? Things like this should be scrutinized, particularly under such unusual circumstances."

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