- The Washington Times - Monday, September 17, 2012

D.C. Council member Jack Evans plans to introduce a bill Wednesday that would remove city lawmakers’ from the contract approval process, a controversial power that allows the council to have a say in deals worth more than $1 million and has fueled suspicions of pay-to-play politics in the city.

Mr. Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Finance Revenue, said the bill dovetails with the city’s focus on ethics reform, including a volunteer effort known as Initiative 70 that seeks to ban direct campaign contributions from corporations.

“Just eliminate the review on contracts, and then you’ve gotten to the crux of the problem,” he said Monday. “I was here when we put (council review of contracts) in place. It’s not like it’s been here forever.”

The council began to review contracts in the 1990s. Mistrust of the city’s mayors during the decade spawned the idea, which came to fruition under the financial control board mandated by Congress, according to Mr. Evans.

“It’s supposed to serve as a check and a balance on the mayor and it doesn’t, because I would say 90 to 95 percent of the contracts we sign off on, people don’t even read ‘em,” said Mr. Evans, who has served on the council since 1991.

Mr. Evans said he does not expect his colleagues to support the proposal at the outset, but they should entertain a hearing on the subject to explore why the council has this oversight power and if it is working.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray declined to comment on the bill Monday, noting he has not had a chance to review it.
Given that it would eliminate council-driven impediments to contracts from his office, Mr. Gray is likely to lend his support for the measure.

“If I were mayor, I would,” Mr. Evans quipped.

But D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, said revoking council review of large city contracts “would be a mistake.” He said the body’s review process, through public hearings and documents, promotes transparency and can ensure the city gets the best deal.

Disclosure is key, rather than an outright revocation of the council’s oversight powers.

“The issue is the council has to be vigilant about abuse,” Mr. Mendelson said.

In response, Mr. Evans maintained that city lawmakers can always hold a hearing on a contract.

“The predisposition among my colleagues is they don’t want to give up that power,” he said.

Mr. Gray and Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan are also attempting to address fears of undue influence in the contracting process in a package of campaign finance reforms devised over the summer for the council’s review this fall. In it, they propose a ban on campaign contributions — from those who hold or are seeking city contracts of more than $250,000 — to candidates who could hold sway over the contract’s approval.

A grand jury is reportedly looking into the controversial awarding of the D.C. Lottery contact in 2009 to a joint venture known as DC09, a partnership between Greek lottery giant Intralot and a local partner, Veterans Services Corp. The award has been tinged by allegations of meddling by council members at the time, because an initial partnership between Intralot and another local partner, W2Tech, was withdrawn and rebid.

A former procurement officer, Eric Payne, filed a lawsuit claiming he was terminated for raising questions about the lottery award.

More recently, Mr. Gray sparred with council member Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, over his objections to facets of a $34 million contract awarded to Verifone to install smart-meters in the city’s taxicabs. Mr. Barry held up an amendment to the contract that would pay for the meters’ installations, arguing the city should wait for pending protests before the D.C. Contract Appeals Board.

An administrative judge recently agreed in a decision that put the installations on ice pending the appeals board’s review of the protests.

Mr. Evans said his bill would avoid these kinds of obstructions in the future.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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