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How The Washington Post Covers for a Top D.C. Official

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The Washington Post is known for aggressively reporting on local corruption in D.C., but the newspaper makes an exception for Jack Evans, the city's longest-serving councilmember. For nearly two decades Evans has chaired the influential finance and revenue committee, giving him sway over how D.C.'s $14.5 billion budget is allocated. From this powerful perch Evans has pushed projects that benefit his private interests, while the Post has largely looked the other way.

That seemed to change in May when the Post reported that Evans and a lobbyist had quietly set up an LLC, which received $50,000 from a digital sign company with business before the city. Evans -- who went to great lengths for the company, Digi Media -- claims he returned their checks. But "that's a matter of optics," explained a former federal prosecutor. "We wouldn't look at whether he gave the money back" The point is he formed this company and he took the money."

The former prosecutor told this to Jeffrey Anderson of District Dig. It is Anderson's reporting that has broken open much of this story, and led D.C.'s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability to open an investigation into the matter. Whether BEGA's investigation leads to more than a slap on the wrist, which is the most Evans' past misconduct has yielded, remains to be seen.

For a story to have real impact in D.C., the Post's weigh-in is key. So it was nice to see the Post follow up on Anderson's reporting with its own story on Evans' LLC receiving the $50,000.

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But that story received just one column on the front page of the May 3 Metro section. That was over a month ago and since then there's been no follow up story. Even when the Post got ahold of an eye-opening letter from Evans to the contractor, it was posted online with no additional coverage.

This 2016 letter -- in which Evans claimed to have returned two $25,000 checks -- is addressed to Don MacCord, a Digi Media executive. In 2016 Digi Media was attempting to plaster D.C. with some 50 digital billboards, which it projected would earn the company hundreds of millions of dollars in ad revenue.

In his letter to MacCord, Evans explains that if he were to cash the checks before voting on the digital sign issue he would have to recuse himself due to a conflict of interest, which wouldn't help either of them. "I believe that it is in both of our best interests for me to delay the initiation of a business relationship with your company while this potential conflict exists," Evans wrote. "We can resume discussions about the need for a consulting arrangement between your company and NSE Consulting [Evans' LLC] as soon as the digital display issue is resolved."

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Evans maintains "there was nothing improper" with the arrangement, yet he still says he returned the checks because his thinking on the matter evolved. "It was just getting the checks and saying, 'Hmm, I don't think this is a good idea,'" Evans told the Post. "I just didn't even want to have a perception of a conflict of interest."

"While it is noteworthy that Evans returned the initial checks to Digi Media," explained Craig Holman of Public Citizen, "the proposal by Evans to resume his contractual relationship with the company in the near future raises the same conflict of interest concerns."

In addition to writing checks to his LLC, Digi Media showed love for Evans in other ways, too. Anderson's reporting shows that when Evans sought support for his constituent services fund in 2015, Digi Media associates quickly came up with $13,000. MacCord offered Evans' college-age son a $20 per hour summer internship at Digi Media in 2016. ("My son John is interested in the summer intern job," Evans emailed MacCord, but later said his son didn't take the position.) Also in 2016, Evans sought help bundling contributions for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, and Digi Media executives helped push Evans past the $50,000 mark, allowing him and MacCord to attend an exclusive event for Clinton in Nantucket.

Meanwhile, Evans went to bat for Digi Media. As the company's push to blanket D.C. with digital billboards ran afoul of city regulations, Evans introduced emergency legislation in late 2016. Evans' bill was an end-run around both Attorney General Karl Racine, who had filed suit against Digi Media, and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which had issued the company a stop-work order. At the last minute, seeing he lacked the votes, Evans pulled his bill.

At that point, having already taken official action benefitting a company that did him favors, Evans might have thrown in the towel. Instead "he punted to Mayor Muriel Bowser's office to fashion an executive rule change" that would have made a Council vote unnecessary, Anderson reported. (After waffling, Bowser elected not to take executive action.)

While this may seem suspect, Evans says it's not. "There's no connection between any of this stuff," Evans told the Post. "There was no summer internship" and no legislation. My puzzlement is there's no real story other than none of this happened."

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Indeed, despite Evans' efforts, Digi Media was stopped in its tracks -- in no small part because of grassroots opposition, led by the civic group The Committee of 100 on the Federal City. But even if the city had given the green light it's unclear whether Digi Media could have executed its plan. In late 2017, MacCord and another Digi Media executive were arrested and charged in two related federal indictments, with defrauding investors and obstruction of justice.

As MacCord faces the possibility of years behind bars, Evans now claims they were never that close. "I know Don, but I don't know him that well," Evans told the Post.

It's hard to imagine a juicier story. A top official and a lobbyist quietly set up an LLC, which receives $50,000 from a company with business before the city. The official goes to bat for the company, but the whole affair ends in failure; and the company's executives are hauled off in handcuffs.

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Pete Tucker is an independent DC reporter.

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