Jim Graham On Developer Donations: ‘Ain’t No Corruption In Me’
Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham has managed to raise more than $210,000, according to recent campaign finance reports. You can bet that the coffers of his challengers–Bryan Weaver and Jeff Smith–are tiny in comparison. Graham's major moolah seems to imply he has some moneyed friends. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that. Well, unless one of those friends was once suspected of having torched a group of your constituents out of their homes.
It's a story the young and nervy Weaver likes to tell as proof that the incumbent is a "dinosaur" who still plays old-style politics. Weaver most recently told a version of the story at the D.C. Democratic State Convention: In 2006, Graham investigated the questionable dealings of a particular developer, Perseus Realty, only to accept campaign donations from the very same developer years later. Graham also acquired a 20-year tax abatement for the company, Weaver says.
That particular narrative could frustrate Graham, who's still seeking to get out from beneath the shadow cast over his office by the arrest of his former chief of staff, Ted Loza, on bribery charges. But the incumbent councilmember isn't shrinking from the insinuation.
"There ain't no corruption in me," Graham tells City Desk. "I'm very sorry about what happened to one of my staff members, but I don't do that stuff."
Graham says Weaver's version of what happened between him and Perseus Realty is all mixed up. He's the hero of the story, not the bad guy: "I'm not the villain, nor was I associating with the villains," Graham claims.
In a February article, the Washington Business Journal attributed Graham's success at campaign fund-raising to two things: His cozy relationship with powerful developers and the ability of corporations to side-step the District's $500 political contribution cap:
"The good news for Graham and other city politicos, is that LLCs – limited liability corporations – each have their own contribution limits. So what do some developers do? Contribute the max for each one of their companies."
Though donating at $500 a pop won't amount to millions, it doesn't take a lot of green to have an impact on cash-strapped local races.
2010 fund-raising records appears to show Perseus Realty, responsible for various projects around the District, as one of the companies willing to ante up. City Desk came across contributions to Graham from Perseus Realty Investments, LLC; Perseus Stillman, LLC; Perseus Realty, LLC; 1110 Vermont Renaissance Assoc,VII/SCH-Perseus M Street; LLC and 14W Member, LLC. All have names that appear to be related to either Perseus Realty or a Perseus Realty project. Each LLC gave the maximum contribution of 500 bucks, save VII/SCH-Perseus M Street, LLC, which contributed only $250.
Perhaps Perseus has good feelings toward Graham because of the 14th and W project, a $97 million mixed-use Perseus development that Graham backed and which he readily acknowledges began a "new acquaintanceship" between the politician and the company.
Some five years ago, the acquaintanceship between Graham and Perseus was close to that of the hunter and the hunted. Back then, Graham was handing out subpoenas to Perseus leadership and employees. "Nobody hit them harder than I did," Graham says of that time. Graham was then chair of the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which oversees the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). DCRA, in turn, regulates District housing.
Graham was after the company because he suspected them of strong-arming renters and misusing a district law, one the City Paper wrote a cover story about in 2006. The law –501(f)–allows landlords who need to make major repairs to an occupied building to vacate the building of tenants while the repairs are made. Though such evacuations are supposed to be temporary, most tenants opt to move on rather than wait the length of time it would take for the landlord to invite them back. After that, the owners are free to develop or sell the property sans pesky tenant rights.
“It’s a sham process,” Jim McGrath of the DC Tenants Advocacy Coalition then told City Paper. “There’s nothing more permanent than temporary removal.”
That's perhaps how it might have gone for Perseus at 1846 Vernon Street NW in 2005: But the tenants of the building wanted to stay and fought the so-called temporary removal. That's when Perseus, a co-owner of the building, allegedly got rough.
According to a final report issued as a result of Graham's investigative hearing on the matter, bad stuff started happening to the tenants in fall of 2006:
In October and November 2006, the tenants of 1846 Vernon Street, NW stated to the Committee that since September 2006, they had observed an increasing number of incidents of violence seemingly directed against tenants and/or the building. On October 16, 2006, vandals smashed glass panels on the doors of several apartments, and, the Committee was told, selectively cut electrical cables so that only occupied units were affected.
The report reveals that in that same year, tenant Latif Sarkar, who lived Apartment 23, "reported having received threats within the building from strangers, who told him to move out within 48 hours or else." The report also offers an account of the most dramatic moment in the battle, a late night arson:
Even more seriously, on November 5, 2006 between 10:00 and 10:30 p.m., a fire broke out at 1846 Vernon Street, NW. Chairperson Graham and Committee staffers inspected the premises the next morning and discussed the incident with tenants, who reported the following. Three tenants of unit #28, Mahmuduel Hoque, Nasimuel Hoque and Rabia Begum, stated they were watching television with relatives when they heard two loud bangs in rapid succession, the second of which was far louder and shook their apartment "like an earthquake," according to Ms. Begum.
The bangs turned out to have a source, a blaze outside their apartment.
No one was severely injured in the fire. But tenants nevertheless slowly gave up and left. Probably because they felt their lives were in danger. According to the report:
A fire investigator from the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department stated that the remnants of an exploded gas can was found in front of #28, and indicated his belief that the cause of the fire was arson. Tenants generally were of the opinion that whoever set the fire did so at the direction of the owner and/or the management company.
Though the arson prompted no criminal case against Perseus, Graham says he went after them "hammer and tong" and would have kept going except for having switched committees. He says Councilmember Marion Barry then took over the Committee for Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. When that happened, the investigation screeched to a halt. Graham says he asked Barry to continue pursuing Perseus, but got no response from the Ward 8 councilmember.
In any event, when the YMCA selected Perseus for the 14th and W Project, Graham put all that business behind him. Graham says that when the YMCA told him about its decision, it brought up the bad blood: "We know you've had some bad experiences with Perseus," Graham recalls YMCA officials saying. The organization explained that there was little chance for the kind of trouble that emerged on Vernon Street as there were no tenants to evict as far as their project went, Graham says.
Asking Graham about the Perseus campaign contributions seems to elicit an answer that's tantamount to "Hey, that's politics."
"Am I happy with this? No," Graham tells City Desk. "Am I a pragmatist? I have to be." Graham says he would prefer it if corporations weren't allowed to donate. Still, City Desk notices from recent records that Graham hasn't sent back any of the money.
Weaver, meanwhile, considers Perseus too tainted to deal with. He says an associate recently offered to introduce him to someone from the development firm. Weaver says he didn't mind the intro as long as it was understood that he would never take money from the company. Weaver says Graham losing the committee that was investigating Perseus was no excuse for no longer fighting the company. "He didn't lose the Ward," says Weaver. Weaver asserts that Graham lost interest in pursuing Perseus when the media stopped paying attention. "While the Washington Post and everyone was focused on it, he was great," says Weaver.
What happened on Vernon, Weaver says, was extremely upsetting. "It was almost old-school gangster," he says.
Graham shoots back that Weaver is just electioneering: "For Bryan, this is just simply trying to get some votes."
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