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."
May 21, 2010; 11:50 AM ET
Categories: Campaign Finance , D.C. Council , Mike DeBonis , transportation
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