D.C. Council Riled Over TV Airing of Fire Truck Testimony
The fishy fire truck testimony delivered last Thursday by Peaceoholics co-founder Ronald Moten before the D.C. Council was plenty dramatic, but the drama apparently did not end with the pound of the gavel.
Since then, a classic council-executive scuffle has broken out over broadcasts of the proceeding on city cable, with allegations flying that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty himself has become personally involved.
Because Thursday's proceeding was considered a "public deposition" rather than a council hearing (it was supposed to be behind closed doors until Moten demanded otherwise), the councilmembers heading up the fire truck investigation—Mary Cheh and Phil Mendelson—determined that its contents should not be disseminated. That's in keeping with the usual council practice on depositions, which are kept under wraps, so other witnesses won't change their testimony to make their stories consistent (Never mind that LL and other reporters already did plenty of disseminating.)
On Thursday, Cheh tells LL, the order went out to the Office of Cable Television, and its director, Eric Richardson, not to air the Moten footage. In spite of this, the deposition was aired at 7 p.m. that night, leading Cheh to send her chief of staff, David Zvenyach, and D.C. Council general counsel Brian Flowers down to OCT headquarters to retrieve the tape.
They got a tape, Cheh says—but apparently, it wasn't the only tape. At 7 p.m. Friday, the deposition was aired again.
"Apparently it was a ruse," Cheh says of the tape handover.
Meanwhile, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray had called Richardson to further impress on him that the council did not want the proceeding aired.
Here's what Cheh says took place, according to various conversations with OCT last week: "We were told that the mayor had called and said that the tape should be shown at 7 p.m. this evening....We learned by a circuitous route...that Mr. Richardson was told that he was to air it and that not only that, if he gets any inquiries from the council, or the chairman, that he's supposed to direct them to the attorney general's office."
Why Fenty would insist on the broadcast of a proceeding implicating two top deputies and a controversial friend in a questionable giveaway of city property is completely beyond LL and other observers. But, in any case, the move has rekindled the council-mayor wars, and has raised real questions about how the separation of powers extends to the District's cable TV system. The system is run by OCT, a executive branch agency, but longstanding practice holds that Channel 16 belongs to the mayor and that Channel 13 belongs to the council.
The mayoral power move "bespeaks a view of the executive that he controls what of our hearings and our meetings goes up," Cheh says. "He's making a claim here that I think is beyond executive authority."
Today, Gray informed his colleagues that he'll be moving emergency legislation tomorrow that would ensure that Channel 13 "shall be under the exclusive control of the Council."
From a memo issued by Gray: "The failure to follow the direction of the Council in whether to broadcast or rebroadcast a deposition in an investigation constitutes a serious imposition on the authority to control Channel 13 and on the oversight and investigation function of the Council and would, therefore, be a serious intrusion on separation of powers. Executive branch control of the Council’s cable channel programming in this and other instances threatens the independence and autonomy of the Council to deliver it’s message to the public without the filter of the Executive branch."
LL is waiting for calls back from Fenty's office,
Richardson, Gray, and Attorney General Peter Nickles. More to come.
UPDATE, 2:30 P.M.: Richardson called back, directing inquiries to Nickles.
UPDATE, 2:50 P.M.: Gray, in an interview, confirms he called Richardson on Thursday night, and that Richardson had indicated that he had been "directed to play" the tape. But Gray says that by conversation's end, he "thought we had an agreement" to keep the proceeding off air. He hasn't had any communications with Richardson or anyone else from the executive since.
Says Gray of the mayoral interference into Channel 13 affairs: "I've never seen anything like this before....It really is controlling information in a very unhealthy way."
UPDATE, 3:30 P.M.: BTW, watch it while you can [WMV video].
UPDATE, 8:10 P.M.: Nickles speaks! "I don't know on what basis after a public session, you can direct someone to keep it off the air," he says. "It is so absurd."
Nickles says he's not aware of Fenty directly ordering Richardson to play the recording.
As for the larger separation-of-powers issues: "It's an executive agency; it's staffed by members of the executive branch."
The council action gave Nickles, not exactly Mr. Transparency, a chance to lecture councilmembers on the subject: "Here's all this talk of transparency, and here, out of the blue, comes this legislation...to give the council the right to effectively seal its proceedings form the public," he says. "I don't understand why you would even suggest that."
As for the legislation Gray plans to introduce, Nickles says, that might raise an issue with contracts the District has signed with its cable providers. Any council action would be prohibited from affecting the terms of those agreements.
"I think this is sort of the problem with this fire truck—that they're looking for this needle in a haystack, and they're not really being consistent or abiding by the law," Nickles says. "This is the latest unusual move."
Nickles, of course, in his own investigation, did not prove himself the most apt haystack-comber—he missed two big needles, named Sinclair Skinner and David Jannarone.