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Graham hires city contractor to hang campaign signs


UPDATE, 5 P.M.: Thies said this afternoon that M.C. Dean finished its work yesterday and has invoiced the Graham campaign for $7,680. The company is not treating any portion of the sign-hanging work as an in-kind contribution, he says, but will make a $500 donation to the campaign.

Original Post: It's one of the trickiest feats in D.C. politicking: sign-hanging.

Campaigns can post placards on street fixtures, but it takes skill and experience to affix them high on lampposts while avoiding injury and adhering to rigorous city rules on where signs can be posted.

Council member Jim Graham, seeking a fourth term representing Ward 1, sought professional help, and now it's a campaign issue.

At a debate in Kalorama on Thursday night, challenger Jeff Smith questioned Graham on why he hired electrical contractor M.C. Dean to hang campaign signs in its bucket-equipped vans. (A Columbia Heights resident snapped the above photo on Sherman Avenue NW last Wednesday.)

Graham said he'd hired the firm, and Chuck Thies, his campaign strategist, explained that M.C. Dean is "being paid to do this work just like anyone else who could be hired to do something."

But Smith's point was that M.C. Dean isn't just anyone else.

The company holds the contract to maintain and repair city traffic signals -- one of the most lucrative contracts in city government. Last year's contract was worth $9.3 million to the company. It was approved by the Department of Transportation, which Graham oversees as chairman of the council's public works committee.

Since 1999, according to city billing records, M.C. Dean has done more than $130 million in business with the District -- the vast majority of it via the transportation department.

Bill Dean, president and CEO of M.C. Dean, said his crews covered "specific areas" of the ward for Graham, with employees working several nights last week. A portion of the work, he said, is being done as an "in-kind" donation to Graham. Dean said he closely tracks the work to comply with campaign finance laws -- which, in D.C. ward races, limit any individual or corporation from donating more than $500 to any one candidate. The Graham campaign would be billed for any overage, he said.

Dean says he's provided the same service to other D.C. and Virginia candidates in the past, but declined to specify which ones. "Jim contacted me early, so I helped him out early," he said.

Thies said M.C. Dean's bucket trucks are supplementing the efforts of sign-hanging crews equipped with ladders. "It's no small undertaking, and we certainly don't want to be asking volunteers to risk shimmying up light poles or falling off ladders," Thies said. "Who better to hang signs on lampposts throughout the District than the guy who gets paid to maintain them and knows how to do it without damaging them?"

Thies and Dean both discounted the notion that the company is buying any influence by hanging signs.

"I've never once dealt with Jim Graham on that," Dean says, referring to his company's DDOT contracting. He adds that oversight of the transportation department is a "rotating position." (Graham has occupied that role since 2007.)

Dean has other interests in Graham's ward. He owns several buildings on lower Georgia Avenue NW, in Ward 1, and is seeking to open a sports bar in one of them. Graham, he said, hasn't intervened on his behalf in the matter: "He doesn't help me out with anything -- to the best of my knowledge, I should say."

Asked if other candidates are welcome to hire M.C. Dean to hang signs, Dean said, "I never thought of that. ... I would cross that bridge when I came to it. I've never been in that situation. I don't usually get a phone call from somebody unless they know I supported them."

Graham, in a brief conversation with a reporter Thursday, explained that he'd consulted other contractors before settling on M.C. Dean. He declined to name them. He added that there is "no suggestion of conflict of interest."

Smith says appearances matter, too: "It's inappropriate, it's unethical, and it's a demonstration of the type of activity that we've seen coming out of that office in the last two years. ... I think if you are a candidate of character and integrity, you would use better judgment than to use someone who has millions of dollars in contracts before your committee."

Bryan Weaver, an Adams Morgan community activist who is also challenging Graham in the Democratic primary and has accused him of enjoying an overly cozy relationship with development interests, goes further: "If you have business before the city, you should not be doing work for a candidate who has oversight over your business ventures."

But Dean says politicking is part of doing business in D.C.

"In Washington, it's important that businesses stay involved, and one of the ways that you've gotta stay involved is that you have to be active in contributing to people that you can occasionally count on for support," he said. "Your council members are essentially states and cities rolled into one . ... They pass a lot of laws."

By Mike DeBonis  |  May 21, 2010; 11:50 AM ET
Categories:  Campaign Finance , D.C. Council , Mike DeBonis , transportation  
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I wonder how many hours of that crew's work equate to the $500 in-kind contribution maximum. Presumably, it would be commensurate with what Dean charges the District for a similar crew under its contact. How many signs do you think $500 worth of labor gets you?

Posted by: DCResidentEmployee | May 21, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse


The teachers at Columbia Heights could really use some coverage right now:

Posted by: TheReflectiveEducator | May 21, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

At a minimum the company should have covered their company name on the van to limit the specter of impropriety.

Posted by: DeanwoodCitizen | May 21, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

ward council members are raising way too much money if they can afford to pay contractors to hang signs. what happened to volunteers?

Posted by: brigidquinn | May 21, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse

OMG! Seriously... This is what made my 'Afternoon Buzz' cut? Who gives a crap?

There's so much other stuff going on that actually matters. There's so much more to be worried about. The only idiots who care about this are those who are already worried about losing a campaign and so in an effort to take the focus off how untalented or useless said person is, he/she searches for any and every reason to point out little stupid stuff to try to make an opponent look bad and to take the focus off of how well said candidate is doing. It happens in so many elections.

It's so sad. But, what is even more sad is that this happens at the cost of tax payer dollars, at the bottom of it all, in the time taken focusing on it, in the resources used to point out this kind of rubbish, etc. We don't even care. We continue to back this type of behavior by getting ruffled over it and wasting time worrying about it.

Who cares?! If anybody thinks for one iota of a second that Jeff Smith or any other candidate won't participate in the same type of behavior but feel okay about it because he/she will skew his/her view of it, somehow making it okay and "different" in his/her eyes, then you are so naive and only contribute to and become part of the problem.

Posted by: jokertoad | May 21, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

jokertoad is Chuck Thies!

Imagine, Jim "Taxi Cash" "AIDS Grift" Graham is caught once again on the dark
edge of an ethical gray area. And Chuck Thies, former attendee at the Karen Hughes Junior College of Political Spokemanship, now there's a bastion of rectitude.

Of course Jim is innocent, he always is, each and every and all of the almost constant string of shady deals he has been caught red handed in. Chief of Staff caught red handed taking cash stuffed brown paper bags, no problem, that was Jim's day off.

I really hope the feds nail these two really good, really soon! The two of them deserve each other.

Posted by: SoCali | May 21, 2010 5:19 PM | Report abuse

Please keep digging. It would be fascinating to know how much Dean has 'helped' Graham's campaigns in the past.

Posted by: lepanto | May 21, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

Forget the money, how much traffic was backed up while these guys hung the signs. Isn't Graham one of the big proponents of going green?

Guess it doesn't count if it's part of his campaign.

Posted by: BEEPEE | May 21, 2010 6:51 PM | Report abuse

Jokertoad made me laugh out loud.

Posted by: DCResidentEmployee | May 21, 2010 10:19 PM | Report abuse

Jokertoad made me laugh out loud. He is so smart.

Posted by: DCResidentEmployee | May 21, 2010 10:20 PM | Report abuse

Jokertoad that was weak and very transparent, but most of all insulting that you even made that weak argument. Must be feeling a tiny bit exposed.

Posted by: warroomchief | May 22, 2010 1:22 AM | Report abuse

If you have the campaign funds, you will spend the money even if only to hang campaign signs. Graham obviously has the money to spend but after 12 years on the Council he has also lost the support of the Ward activists who make up the volunteers in campaigns. So he has to pay.

Regardless, his opposition is weak and Graham will win in a walk. Too bad. After twelve years he should move on to something else and let new blood (and new brain power) lead the Ward.

Posted by: NewEra | May 24, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

Did the DC Public Library pay for this Jim Graham sign?

Posted by: smoke111 | May 25, 2010 9:03 AM | Report abuse

Jim Graham is the CHAIRMAN of the public works committee that oversees both DDOT and DPW. M.C. Dean is a major contractor for DDOT to the tune of millions of dollars. The maintain ALL of the streetlights in the District of Columbia. I'd say this relationship is out of line. Graham doesn't seem to understand what the phrase "Avoid event he appearance of impropriety" means when it applies to public officials.

He has an entitlement syndrome that his Ward residents can cure by voting him out of office. They need to catch on to the anti-incumbency spirit sweeping the nation.

Posted by: concernedaboutdc | May 25, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

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