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D.C. Mayor Gray’s open government shut behind closed doors

High-profile meeting closed to press

- The Washington Times - Monday, June 25, 2012

The director of a newly created city agency with control over the District's 30-million-square-foot real estate portfolio met privately last week with politically connected lawyers, lobbyists and developers despite D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray's open-government policies and an ethics pledge he imposed on city officials to ensure transparency.

The meeting at the law firm of Holland & Knight, according to a firm representative, was "closed to the press," and a Washington Times reporter who asked to speak with Department of General Services Director Brian Hanlon was told that the director had not arrived. The firm's business manager, who refused to give his name, and a security guard then asked the reporter to 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 required agency directors to sign an ethics pledge that states that government employees "must act impartially and avoid giving preferential treatment to anyone," and must not use "the government's power and resources for a private (rather than public) purpose."

Thursday's meeting raises questions about how seriously the Gray administration takes those standards — particularly in light of the fact that a Holland & Knight representative said the firm hosts such events regularly.

Kathleen Clark, former special counsel in the D.C. office of the attorney general and a professor of legal and government ethics at Washington University in St. Louis, said the implication of Mr. Gray's code of conduct "seems to be that this kind of event may be inconsistent with the high standards of conduct that then-Council Chair Gray recommended."

But Ms. Clark stressed that Mr. Gray's more recent ethics pledge, which he requires of all Cabinet-level officials, contains sufficiently tough standards.

"The real issue is whether District officials are observing those standards," she said.

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."

Lobbyists, lawyers

Just last week, Holland & Knight, a firm that boasts some of the most influential lawyers and lobbyists in Washington, demonstrated one aspect of how it builds 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 drawn negative attention to Mr. Gray and members of his inner circle.

An event this week, also 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 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., 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.

"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," he said.

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 official. 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.

'Strive to comply'

Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for Mr. Gray, said in an email that D.C. officials attend thousands of meetings with countless people, companies, contractors, workers, constituents, stakeholders and the public at large. "We strive to fully comply with all open-meetings rules and laws, and work hard to be as open as possible," he said. "Part of that openness is meeting with people, and simply meeting with someone does not denote any special or preferential treatment."

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 the 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 the District'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 the Department of General Services, said such private audiences with Gray administration officials are not uncommon. But he noted that other law firms that host similar briefings usually open the events to the public.

Mr. Robinson could not account for why Holland & Knight bars the media.

"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 all right if the press attended."

Mr. Ribeiro said the Gray administration feels powerless in the face of such invites.

"While we would prefer that meetings be held openly, we don't have the authority to dictate to private groups, individuals and business," he said.

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