D.C. DGS director briefs lobbyists behind closed doors

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The director of a newly created city agency with control over the District’s 30 million-square-foot real estate portfolio met privately Thursday with politically-connected lawyers, lobbyists and developers in apparent violation of longstanding open government policies proposed by D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

The meeting at the law firm of Holland & Knight, according to the firm’s marketing representative, was “closed to the press” and when a reporter asked to speak with Department of General Services (DGS) Director Brian Hanlon, he was told the director had not arrived. The firm’s business manager, who refused to give his name, and a security guard then requested the reporter leave.

When he served as chairman of the D.C. Council, Mr. Gray urged the city to adopt a “Code of Official Conduct” to prevent conflicts of interest and set “unusually high standards of honesty, integrity and impartiality.” As mayor, he has pledged an open and transparent administration.

Thursday’s meeting raises questions of how seriously the city takes those standards – particularly in light of the fact that the firm in question hosts such events on a monthly basis.

Holland & Knight is a juggernaut firm whose members appear before “most major administrative agencies in the District of Columbia,” and “actively participates in a wide range of legislative, regulatory, tax, land use, construction, contractual, labor, litigation, public finance and municipal law proceedings affecting the business community,” according to the firm’s website.

Such credentials support the claim that the firm’s work “has given us a keen understanding of the intricacies and inner workings of the District government, and we have built valuable professional relationships that help us to advocate on your behalf. This kind of focus and region-specific approach means you will be well-represented in D.C.”

Just last week Holland & Knight, a firm that boasts some of the most influential lawyers and lobbyists in D.C., demonstrated one aspect of building such “valuable professional relationships,” when it hosted a fundraiser for recently elected Ward 5 Democrat Kenyan McDuffie, who ran on a pledge to curtail the kind of campaign bundling that has already drawn negative attention to Mr. Gray and members of his inner circle.

This week’s event, also held at the firm’s glass enclosed offices on Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest, offered “an opportunity for you to meet and talk with Mr. Brian Hanlon in an informal setting,” according to an email invitation obtained by The Washington Times.

On the table at the entrance to the briefing were badges for Pedro Alfonso, a developer, political fundraiser and commissioner with the D.C. Housing Authority, and prominent Holland & Knight lawyer-lobbyists such as Roderic L. Woodson, former city administrative officer Neil Albert and Norman M. Glasgow Jr., a host of last week’s fundraiser who represents developers and institutions in zoning, building code and historic preservation law matters before the city.

Campaign finance analyst Craig Holman, legislative representative of the watchdog group Public Citizen, said the two events send a clear message to the firm’s clients and the business community in general: “It is insider influence peddling, that’s what it is,” Mr. Holman said. “When you hand over campaign cash to a political candidate one week and then meet privately with a government official the next week it looks like these events were planned closely.”

Regarding the closure of the meeting to the press, Mr. Holman added, “The sponsors have the right to screen out who can attend, however, that does not give them the right to deny press access to an event attended by a government offiical. They really stepped over the line here, that’s going too far.

“At the very least they should have let you wait for the official to arrive so you could speak to him,” he said.

Joe Berger, listed on the firm’s website as “Business Manager,” and Paul Kiernan, the firm’s executive partner, did not return calls for comment.

When The Times inquired last week of Mr. Hanlon’s office about the guest list and media access for the briefing, a spokesman confirmed that he was appearing at the invitation of Holland & Knight, and said firm controlled invitations and media policies for the event.

Mr. Hanlon, an architect who left the private sector to serve as director of one of D.C.’s largest and most ambitious agencies, described the briefing as an outreach event, similar to others his office has attended around the city to introduce the agency and explain its mission.

“We want to communicate and provide clarity on how companies can get involved and how to compete,” he said after the briefing.

Asked about the media policy for the event, Mr. Hanlon said, “I’m an open book. To me, the press is welcome without an invitation. But I don’t want to dictate to them how to manage their event.”

Tony Robinson, spokesman for City Administrator Allen Y. Lew, who oversees DGS, said such private audiences with Gray administration officials are not uncommon. But he could not account for why Holland & Knight bars the media.

Mr. Robinson noted that other law firms that host similar briefings usually open the event to the public.

“Personally, I don’t see having the press there as a bad thing,” he said. “This is where a private firm could use a primer in media relations. In hindsight, it would have been appropriate for us to ask if it was alright if the press attended.”

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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