D.C.’s mayor fends off new accusations that his 2010 campaign had unlawful access to a database of public housing residents. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign calls on Virginia officials to investigate voter registration forms mailed in the commonwealth. And a special legislative session on casino gambling appears to be back in the cards in Maryland. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
Member, Arlington County Board (D)
Chairman, D.C. Board of Ethics and Accountability; Former Attorney General, District of Columbia
Resident Analyst; NBC 4 reporter; and Columnist for the Current Newspapers
Member, U.S. House of Representatives (R- Virginia, 10th District)
Politics Hour Video
Robert Spagnoletti, chairman of the new D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, talked about the enforcement authority the board will have to investigate civil infractions. “We actually have much broader subpoena power” than the attorney general’s office, he said. Spagnoletti, who works full time as an attorney and represents clients in disputes with the D.C. government, responded to questions of a potential conflict of interest. He said there is a 2 percent chance that one of his cases would involve the city and that he would recuse himself from legal matters touching on ethics issues.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Politics Hour," starring Tom Sherwood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. And the question this week is, will he be gambling at National Harbor anytime soon?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe governor of Maryland, Martin O'Malley, has announced a special legislative session -- or he's expected to announce it today on expanded gambling. And the question for Tom Sherwood is, how do you think this session will turn out? What are the chances of the governor being able to expand gambling when there seems to be a great deal of opposition in Maryland?
MR. TOM SHERWOODWell, I think Gov. O'Malley is fairly smart, and I think he'd be foolish if he called a special session...
SHERWOOD...and could not count the votes in advance. So, yes, there will be some -- maybe some last-minute haggling, but, surely, the -- that's why it's been so long calling this special session. He's been trying to line up the votes for it. I think what's significant -- we're not really just talking about will there be gambling at National Harbor, will that feed -- undercut what's happening at Anne Arundel Mall, what's it, Maryland Live it's called?
SHERWOODBut this legislation, according to the stories, will allow gambling, casino gambling, table games, not just slots, in all of Maryland if there's a gambling term for it. The governor is going all in on gambling in the state of Maryland. We're going to stop pretending that, oh, we've got the lottery games. We've got some slots. We're going to become a gambling state according to what the story say he's going to propose in -- on August 9.
NNAMDIWell, just in case he loses, there are those who say he's calling it two years out from the next election so that by the time he -- whatever he decides to do in two years -- and there's a great deal of speculation about that -- that this episode will be either a victory or forgotten by that time.
SHERWOODI think if it's a victory, it will be a victory, but I don't think it will be forgotten. If he calls a special session, tries to establish gambling across the state of Maryland and fails, I don't think people are going to forget that.
NNAMDIThe House minority whip, Steny Hoyer, a Democrat of Maryland, talked this past week about the possibility -- or his thoughts about a commuter tax imposed by the District of Columbia, that in the wake of Congressman Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, suggesting that the idea of a new tax might deserve some attention. Congressman Hoyer is saying, quoting here, "Everybody in America pays to support the District of Columbia. Everybody pays that because it's the capital of the United States."
SHERWOODThat's hogwish -- hogwash. I wish it were...
NNAMDIHogwash and hogwish, too.
SHERWOODI just -- I'm trying to edit myself here. I'm going on vacation. I don't want to be called by my editors. Why did you say that? Steny Hoyer has been a big friend of the city on a number of issues, but to suggest that it's OK for the other 48 states to subsidize Maryland and Virginia and let them take out $2 billion in money out of the city every year and they get the money and we don't is just wrong. And there's no defense of it.
SHERWOODMr. Hoyer can say all he wants about federal moneys that come to the District, but the $11 billion budget, about five to $6 million of that is city-raised taxes. And the $2 billion of that is money we could have gotten if we could tax the people who work here but live in the suburbs. Every state, every jurisdiction, including Mr. Hoyer's, gets federal money of one kind or another to help their operation.
SHERWOODSo it's disingenuous -- but I guess he was honest. He said that if this got to be a serious issue, he would unite with the other senators and representatives from Maryland and Virginia to block it. That's exactly why we don't have it. Maryland and Virginia...
NNAMDII was about to say what's new about that.
SHERWOOD...have voting rights in Congress, and we don't. And they are fairly powerful in their various committees and their -- I don't want to say that. They're very fairly powerful. I don't care about this issue at all, but I would just say it's another way the city is not treated fairly by the Congress.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, he's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers, in addition to being a self-editor. The news coming out of the District since we last met was about how the Gray campaign in 2010 was able to apparently access a database coming out of the Department of Housing that had a listing of public housing residents that the campaign or the shadow campaign, one of the two, allegedly used to target bringing out the vote moves in public housing. And, of course, access to that or the use of such a database is, I'm assuming or concluding, illegal.
SHERWOODWell, if this were the only thing about the Gray 2010 campaign that had been brought up, I don't think it would have been -- first of all, it would have not been the lead story in the front page of The Washington Post. It might have been at the bottom of the front or on the metro page. It would have been an interesting aspect of the campaign, did the mayor, did Vince Gray as chairman of the council and his son Carlos who works for the Housing Authority that has access to the list in any way obtain the list illegally and then illegally use it.
SHERWOODI just don't know. The big part of the story, for me, was -- is the first time in the scandals stories about the Gray administration that the mayor's son named has come up.
SHERWOODI don't know if he did anything illegally or not. He said he didn't. He said in the story he didn't. And so I don't know, but it just shows the widening aspects of the investigation of the Gray campaign. I did check with some of the world of lawyers around this issue, and it's not a big focus by the prosecutors or the defense attorneys.
NNAMDIAnd speaking of lawyers, we have one in the room. He is now the chairman of the D.C. Board of Ethics and Accountability, also a former attorney general for the District of Columbia. Robert Spagnoletti, welcome.
MR. ROBERT SPAGNOLETTIHi, Kojo.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. You can join this conversation by sending us a tweet, @kojoshow, email to email@example.com, or by going to our website, kojoshow.org, and joining the conversation there. Speaking of sending a tweet, Tom Sherwood, a tweet was sent out in the name of former D.C. Chairman Kwame Brown, and I wish you would read it for the benefit of the members of our listening audience. Now, he just was holding it up a second ago.
NNAMDIHe can't find it.
SHERWOODI have documents over here.
SHERWOODAnd something tweeted out under his name because I do not know that he, in fact, tweeted it. Kwame Brown sent out something that says: Karma. No need for revenge. Just sit back and wait. Those who hurt you will eventually screw up themselves. And if you're lucky, God will let you watch. Now...
NNAMDIIt's an unusual definition for karma.
SHERWOODI think -- can we say crap on the air? I don't think -- it's not karma.
NNAMDIYou've -- all of a sudden, you've stopped self-editing?
SHERWOODWell, I'm trying to be, you know, professional here, but here's the deal. If I were convicted or I pled guilty to a crime and I were waiting to be sentenced in September for those crimes and could possibly be facing significant fines and jail time, I would not be sending out any type of tweet or communication in which I sound like I've been mistreated.
SHERWOODAnd this sounds like he feels he's been mistreated. Now, I would think his attorney didn't approve this.
NNAMDIIf indeed, as you pointed out, it was he who sent it out or if it was someone...
SHERWOODWell, it was just sent out under his name. You never quite know. There are a lot of names and a lot of tweets. You can't just assume that the person actually did it.
NNAMDIRobert Spagnoletti, you have been around the block a time or two in D.C. government. You were the city's first attorney general. Now, you're the first chairman of its new board of ethics and accountability, which held its inaugural meeting this past week. What exactly is going to be the role of this new panel? By the way, congratulations.
NNAMDIAnd what is your philosophy going to be as you get it off the ground?
SPAGNOLETTIOK. So the board, it's brand new, as you pointed out, and its responsibility is to administer what they call the code of conduct. And that's really a compilation of all the rules, regs and statutes that outline the ethical responsibilities of government employees and public officials. It's -- actually, there's nine subcomponents to it, but it really covers a range of things -- gifts and partiality, conflicts of interests, post-government employment, honorarium, financial disclosures, lobbyist registration and the like.
SPAGNOLETTIAnd so it's a very broad mandate. In administering that code of conduct, we have to do lots of different things, including, you know, reviewing the rules and regs and proposing new ones to update it and make it consistent with best practices. We also conduct investigations into violations of the code of the conduct. We do confidential investigations at first or get inquiries, and then when they become formal, they become public.
SPAGNOLETTIAnd we conduct full-blown investigations, complete with contested adversarial hearings. We have the power -- civil enforcement authority, so we have the power to impose fines, censure employees, recommend their removal. We also have other laundry lists of duties and responsibilities, including providing formal and informal advice on ethics issues. People can come to us and ask, is it OK for me to do this thing I'm about to do?
SPAGNOLETTIAnd we can give them advice. We also -- we'll be taking over the financial disclosure responsibilities from the Office of Campaign Finance for public filers, all the lobbyist registration responsibilities also from Office of Campaign Finance. We have open government responsibilities to enforce the Open Meeting Act, as well as a role in sort of mediating out or resolving FOIA issues with government agencies to ensure the most open government policies.
NNAMDIWell, can you blame people for being maybe a little confused because the city now has a board of elections, an Office of Campaign Finance -- you just indicated you'll be taking over some of its current responsibilities -- and now a board of ethics and accountability. And people are wondering, well, who's going to be responsible for what? Because, from you just described, you're going to be responsible for everything.
SPAGNOLETTIWell, we're not responsible for campaign finance, and so OCF, Office of Campaign Finance, will still be responsible for that process. But the truth is that, right now, ethics complaints and ethics advice is being given out in every corner of the city in different ways. And, in fact, one of the big challenges for us is trying to figure out exactly how many of these, particularly, complaints we're going to have to deal with.
SPAGNOLETTIRight now, they go not just to campaign finance but to the inspector general, to the attorney general and to individual agency directors for all 60-some odd or more agencies and boards -- everything that's out there. And so, you know, if someone has got a complaint that, you know, a contracting officer is improperly steering a contract someplace or a nepotism issue is going on, who knows where that complaint is being made or how it's being resolved? But the idea is to consolidate it before this board will then have an opportunity to be consistent (unintelligible).
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments about the D.C. Board of Ethics and Accountability, for Robert Spagnoletti, call now at 800-433-8850.
SHERWOODAs you just said, if you can just simply organize into coherent fashion how ethics issues will be investigated, reviewed and prosecuted, that will be terrific. But I was -- I have worried that there's no staff or there's very little staff. I looked at the enabling legislation, and it says, yeah, you can have a chief of staff and here or there, and you might -- and I don't think you have a real office. Is that correct? And we should be clear. This -- you're technically going into effect on October the 1st. Is that...
SPAGNOLETTIWe were sworn in two weeks ago, on July 12, and we have to start taking ethics complaints on Oct. 1.
SHERWOODRight. So will you have...
NNAMDIThey're going to have a small staff and then there's Dorothy Brizill, but go ahead, please.
SHERWOODWe'll see if you hired her already.
SHERWOODWill there be a staff, a website so people can file anonymous claims if they want to, or will -- if I want to make a complaint as a citizen, will it be I'll have to make it by my name? It seems to me you could be overwhelmed very quickly if you don't have the resources to take on what you just described.
SPAGNOLETTIRight. We do have the -- we have eight FTEs, so that's eight people that we'll be able to hire.
SHERWOODFull-time equivalent employees?
SPAGNOLETTIRight. So we have eight staff members that we will be hiring. We have nobody so far. We will be announcing, if not today, then Monday, the vacancy for the director of government ethics who is the lead person in the office. He is or she will be the gatekeeper of all the complaints that come in, providing advice, managing the staff of the office, all the sort of day-to-day stuff that is going on because the board members, I mean, we're part-time special government employees.
SPAGNOLETTISo the director will be the first hire that we do, followed by, you know, general counsel and investigators and some administrative staff people. Our hope is -- we already have a website up. It's www. B-E-G-A -- BEGA, Board of Ethics and Government Accountability -- .dc.gov. And it's, you know, it's a skeleton website right now. But we are posting our meeting announcements and other announcements there. As for the method by which we take complaints in, there really will be several ways it can get in the door.
SPAGNOLETTIWe have to -- the statute requires us to establish a hotline, a confidential hotline so people will be able to call up and give confidential information about suspected ethics violations for us to follow up and investigate. We are empowered to do them on our own. So if it were a certain reporter or a broadcast journalist were to sort of make a suggestion that something was going on, we can follow up on our own. We also are empowered to take formal...
NNAMDIOh, we already have suggestions.
SPAGNOLETTIFor -- we are empowered to take formal complaints from the inspector general, from the attorney general and other folks. Similarly, we are empowered to refer them out, so if things come in that we deem sufficiently criminal in nature to go to the U.S. attorney or the attorney general.
SHERWOODWell, let's get to punishment 'cause I think people feel strongly when such an ethics morass at this moment that -- well, how tough can your office be, assuming you find -- adjudicate something and find that there have been ethics violation? What's the worst punishment you can mete out? Is it the $5,000 fine or referral to the U.S. attorney or something?
SPAGNOLETTII guess it really -- there's a -- none of the -- all the possible penalty is fairly significant given that it's civil enforcement as opposed to criminal. So that's $5,000 fine per event. So if there are multiple events, obviously you can multiply them. But also three times the value of whatever the financial misconduct was. So if, for example, you were to have misappropriated or misused $100,000 worth of government funds, the board could fine you $300,000 as a result.
SHERWOODAnd that's different from the D.C. attorney general who can prosecute for criminal matters, not civil matters. Or there will be -- or there'll be some misdemeanor criminal matters or...
SPAGNOLETTIThere'll be -- yeah, and the U.S. attorney will probably...
SPAGNOLETTIYou know, well, there'll be a variety depending on where it goes.
NNAMDISpeaking of enforcement, we have a caller on the line. Gentlemen, don your headphones, please, so that you can listen to Chris in Laurel, Md. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISThanks for taking my question. Yes. Will this new board have subpoena power and any type of enforcement power, or is it basically a fact-finding body, like an IG, that, you know, turns its findings over to some other enforcement agency? Thanks. I'll hang up and listen.
NNAMDIThanks for your question, Chris.
SPAGNOLETTIA very good question. We actually do have complete subpoena authority. We have deposition authority, and we can subpoena not only documents but testimony as well. In fact, I had a conversation with the attorney general Irv Nathan not too long ago. We actually have much broader subpoena power than he has on conducting our investigations.
SPAGNOLETTIMoreover, while we certainly have and are required to do referrals for criminal prosecution because we don't have criminal authority, we are the civil enforcement authority. So we will impose civil penalties, fines, censure, recommended removal from office if that's necessary or we find that it's appropriate. And then we have the enforcement ability to go into Superior Court of the District of Columbia and enforce those fines, enforce those provisions. We don't need to go anywhere else.
NNAMDISince we're talking about ethics here, some concerns have been raised about a possible conflict of interest on your part. The washingtonpost.com, quoting from your firm's website, saying that you regularly advise individuals and businesses on how to navigate a variety of legal issues through the District of Columbia government. You negotiate on their behalf with the District of Columbia agencies and officials.
NNAMDIHow will that be dealt with? Is there an ethics law already on the books that can deal with that as The Post seems to suggest? There is a federal statute that makes it a crime for a district official to represent a private party in a dispute with the D.C. government. But since you are not a full-time employee, how will that apparent conflict be resolved in your case?
SPAGNOLETTIThat's all right. And these issues all got thrashed out fairly extensively during the confirmation process. But we are special government employees, which means that we -- we're part-time folks, and we are expected to go on with our regular lives and our regular businesses and can continue to have contact and deal with the District of Columbia, you know, in a professional capacity, as long as we follow the rules and regulations that are in place.
SPAGNOLETTIAnd so, for example, for me, because I'm an attorney with a law firm here in town, and we do some cases, not very many cases -- and it's fewer than maybe 2 percent of our total, our case work -- come in contact with the District of Columbia, to the extent that any of those matters would touch on ethics issues or potential ethics issues, I obviously would have to recuse myself from participation on those matters.
SPAGNOLETTIAnd it's perfectly appropriate, and, you know, the attorney general has weighed in on this, and other folks have weighed on this as well. It's perfectly appropriate for me to do so. I think that the chance of actually having a conflict is very, very, very low, given the nature of what we do and when that would intersect with the potential ethics problem in the District.
SPAGNOLETTII mean, if we represent somebody in a civil lawsuit that involves the District of Columbia government, it is highly unlikely that that would trigger a conflict with an ethics issue. But I would personally recuse myself from dealing with a matter when I'm having a professional relationship with a district government employee at the same time.
NNAMDIA one, small -- one smaller issue, because I mentioned the name Dorothy Brizill before, for our listeners who may not who that is, she runs an independent news website called DCWatch and is known as a government watch dog. She noted that, prior to this past week's meeting, people trying to contact the board by phone were directed to your firm's telephone number, and she suggested that that was improper.
SPAGNOLETTIWell, it's not improper. It's certainly improper to use government resources for private gain. But we are part-time employees, and, as of when the meeting notice went out, we did not have -- we still don't have a government phone number. And it would be unfair to the members of the general public to send out a notice for a meeting and say, when you have questions, there's nobody to contact.
SPAGNOLETTIAnd so we thought it better -- and it's perfectly appropriate to so do -- to have them contact me as the chair of the board because I'm the only -- we're the only staff that we have so far.
NNAMDITom Sherwood. I can't wait to hear Tom Sherwood ask about transparency.
SHERWOODI just want to make sure to clarify this 'cause it is -- if you were, as a lawyer in private practice, representing a corporation that's trying to get a city government contract and you advise this corporation on what to do, how to do it, there's a competition, and somebody wins that contract. And then another corporation that loses, files suit or claims unethical violations, would that come before your panel and then that you would recuse yourself at that point, or would that not even happen?
SPAGNOLETTIThat's sounding more like a bid protest type. I mean, surely...
SHERWOODYeah. I mean, there are the bid -- right. But if they wanted to say it was unethical, and the bid protest process is not fair. We're challenging the whole thing. We're going to take it before the ethics board.
SPAGNOLETTIWell, I mean, the ethics board is dealing with the conduct of individuals. So if what you're suggesting is that it was a D.C. government employee who did something improper and my firm, whether it was me or anybody in my firm, ever touched the matter, I would recuse myself from it.
NNAMDIThere's another situation that a caller wants to ask about that falls exactly in what you're talking about, Tom. So here's Lance in Northeast Washington. Lance, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LANCEGood afternoon, gentlemen. Yes, I found this week's story in The Washington Post disgusting when I found out that the Gray administration used public -- people living in public housing, their personal records in the political process. Everybody who has something to do with that ought to be fully investigated, and if they found that they had -- they worked for the government, for the mayor administration, they ought to be prosecuted and sent to jail.
NNAMDIOutside of the criminal aspect of that, Robert Spagnoletti, would that kind of investigation fall under a board with U.S. chair? And having represented Mayor Gray yourself, how would you deal with that situation?
SPAGNOLETTIOK. So there are several questions sort of mixed in here, and I'm going to stay away from the particular facts of that matter only because I can't say whether or not it will or will not come before the board. Just for everyone's information, we have jurisdiction reaching back five years. So we have a five-year period of limitations. If it occurred within the past five years, we can consider things.
SPAGNOLETTIIf somebody misused -- any D.C. government employee misused government property from private gain, including the possibility of using it for gain in a campaign which is outside your, you know, sort of D.C. government official duties, that would be appropriate for the board to look at. It actually would have some overlap with the Office of Campaign Finance. And we've been engaged in conversation with them about how to handle when we have overlapping issues 'cause it could happen from time to time.
SPAGNOLETTISo that might be one example of that, but we absolutely have the authority to look at the misuse of government property. As to my relationship with the mayor, it is true. I represented him in his personal capacity in connection with his fence, a fence around his house that was built without a permit. And I handled the matter before the Public Space Committee several years ago.
SHERWOODAnd let me go back to that because, when you were announced, we all asked those questions at the first press conference. And we asked about the fence, you know, and you had said that you had discussed that with the mayor, that you would be clear that you would take this ethics job irrespective of anything that has happened in that past...
SHERWOOD...and that you said something that -- I was looking for the quote here in all my papers -- that you value your own reputation more than any job. That sounds kind of Pollyannaish sort of civics, ninth grade civics like. But you admit that.
SPAGNOLETTIWell, absolutely. You know, I -- what I said was I came in this job with my integrity, and I'm leaving with my integrity. And that means trying, you know, to live by the law and do the very best I can, particularly when it comes to things like recusal on conflicts because this board in particular needs to be as transparent as it can be with what it's doing, and it needs to make sure that the public gains confidence early on in its ability to actually do the work.
SPAGNOLETTINow, I said -- I personally believe that even if a new matter came up involving Mayor Gray that I could be absolutely fair and impartial. But I recognize that even if there's not an actual conflict, that there could be a perception of a conflict given my prior representation of him and the fact that he appointed me to this board. And so what I have said, and I will live by, is that I will stay away from matters in which he is the subject, certainly the beginning of the tenure, my tenure on the board.
SPAGNOLETTII can't say that several years from now -- I have a six-year appointment, and, you know, he's got -- I'm going to outlast his first term, his term as mayor. I can't say that it would be true as we go forward, 'cause as more time has passed since my representation of him and my appointment by him, that becomes less of a public perception issue. There's an actual conflict, for example, there was an issue about the fence or my prior representation, obviously would definitely stay away from that.
SHERWOODWell, your friends asked this question and you've heard it, and I asked you out there in the hallway. Successful lawyer, nice family life -- why take this jobs? What do -- I mean, given the ethics issues around the city and the kind of a post poll that shows people are -- we're on the wrong track, we're in the wrong direction, we turned down the wrong road, whatever you want to say, why did you take this job?
SPAGNOLETTIOK, that's a good question. I was -- when the mayor called and asked me to consider doing this -- you know, we're obviously in the throes of a crisis in confidence in government officials. And I know all too well that the vast majority of D.C. government employees and public officials are tremendously hardworking, dedicated, diligent employees. And they are adversely affected by the public perception that somehow rather they are not living up to the highest of ethical standards.
SPAGNOLETTIAnd I -- you know, I can't unload the mantle being the former attorney general. So I go everywhere, and people are more than happy to tell me all the things that they think are wrong with the District of Columbia, including their public officials. And so instead of just listening to the problem and hearing people gripe about it, this is an opportunity to be a part of the solution of the problem. Yes, it's an investment of a lot of time. And, you know, I -- in it's -- Lord knows we're not getting paid a lot of money to do all of this.
SPAGNOLETTIBut at the end of the day, if I can contribute to my own community where my kids are growing up and going to school, I think that it's worth the effort. And as I've told some folks, you know, the people you need to really be thanking for this, you know, my partner and my spouse, Bernard, and my kids who are volunteering my time to do this.
SHERWOODAnd could we just point out, I think, looking at the quote, the most you can make is, like, $26,000?
NNAMDIThat would be per year.
SHERWOODPer year, I apologize. Yes, for an entire year.
NNAMDIRobert Spagnoletti is the chairman of the D.C. Board of Ethics and Accountability. He is also a former attorney general for the District of Columbia. Robert Spagnoletti, Thank you for joining us. Good luck to you.
SPAGNOLETTIThank you very much. My pleasure.
NNAMDIYou're listening to The Politics Hour where Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter, a columnist for The Current News papers and among other things, an expert on the political career of former mayor now city Councilmember Marion Barry, who apparently, according to the poll conducted this past week by The Washington Post, has the highest favorable rating among local officials with 52 percent among all residents.
NNAMDIOf course, Mike DeBonis of The Washington Post pointing out that he also in a way has the most -- has the highest unfavorable rating with the possible exception of current Mayor Vincent Gray.
SHERWOODWell, this is the conundrum, the -- whatever the word is, of Marion Barry. He's the most liked person in the city politics, and he's the most disliked according to the poll. You know, he's -- as DeBonis said, he's a polarizing figure. He has been. He always hates it when we say that. He says, I haven't done anything to polarize anyone, but he is. He's -- I think Eleanor Holmes Norton has a higher approval rating. I think Chief Lanier has a higher approval rating in the various Post polls that have been done.
SHERWOODBut Marion Barry is one of the -- is, of course, well known in the city and in the African-American community. Despite embarrassment for some of the bad things the mayor has done in his life and his personal life, there is strong respect for him and what he's done as a public figure, and that shows up in the polling. It's -- conversely, the white community, which had less of the benefit of some of his political activities, don't like him at all.
NNAMDIWe're talking on The Politics Hour with Tom Sherwood, and joining us now by telephone is Frank Wolf. He is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He is a Republican from Virginia. Congressman Wolf, thank you for joining us.
REP. FRANK WOLFSure. Good to be with you both. Thank you.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for Congressman Frank Wolf, you can call us at 800-433-8850, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Mr. Congressman, before we get into other matters, we should start out by telling you that we spoke with Gerry Connolly last week, one of the Democrats from Virginia's congressional delegation who boycotted a meeting with Gov. McDonnell.
NNAMDIThe Democrats said they disapproved of a press conference that the governor had scheduled after your meeting, where they said he was expected to make partisan comments -- this is the way they characterized them -- about the administration and the possibility of cuts in defense spending. How would you describe what happened last week?
WOLFWell, I think it was a misunderstanding on maybe on both sides. But I think it ended well because the following day, we had a delegation meeting of all -- most of the Republican members and I think all of the Democratic members. And I think it's history, frankly. The delegation worked very, very well together. You know, Jim Moran and Connolly and I worked together on a lot of issues with Mark Warner. So I think there could have been a misunderstanding.
WOLFThere has been governor meetings, press conferences afterward. And I think the combination of what the subject could have been, could have been misunderstood. But I think that's really old, old news because we met the following day.
SHERWOODCongressman, Tom Sherwood from Channel 4.
SHERWOODYou have a reputation as being a bipartisan person, someone who walks -- works across the aisles, walks across the aisle. But was this flap somewhat indicative of the poisoned atmosphere on Capitol Hill where every partisan advantage or concern is played out ahead of public policy?
WOLFYou know, could have been. I think you're coming into an election season. There are strong feelings on both sides with regard to what's taking place in the country at this time. And I think the closer you get to election, there can be a misunderstanding what may seem -- if something have been done nine months before an election, it has a different context to a different connotation. But as you get closer -- but, yeah, we're in a political season and, you know, those who support the Obama administration do.
WOLFI'm opposed to the Obama administration. I want to see Mitt Romney win. So as you get to that time -- and we're down -- what are we? We're about 110, 100-whatever days. But -- so, yes, I think the answer to your question, Tom, is yes. I think politics on both sides because of where we are in the presidential election can have an impact on something that may be innocent at another time.
SHERWOODDo you agree with the general perception that Virginia is a battleground state and then additionally, there were some concerns that Mr. Romney in the last few days have said -- has said he's still identifying himself to the voters. And some people think that's kind of late. So it...
WOLFIt is a battleground state. As you know, Virginia historically -- and you would know better than anyone, you've covered this for years but -- has been historically a Republican state. It went the other way with regard to President Obama. I think it's the -- maybe last time since 1964 with President Johnson. But...
WOLF...I think the state is now going to come back to Republican Party. I've been out there. We were out -- I mean, everywhere I go, I just sense these people are really concerned about where we are in the country today economically. Everyone knows that we're in trouble. And so I think there was a lot of hope and optimism with President Obama when he ran. I think a lot of people liked him personally. And I think there was more of an imagination that this would be a kind of a renaissance, a great opportunity.
WOLFIt hasn't turned out that way. And we're at -- we're going to be at 17, by the end of this year, trillion dollars of debt. There is no way to kind of deal with that that the administration has put out. I personally support the Simpson-Bowles Commission. The president appointed Simpson and Bowles, gave them the opportunity to do something. They came back with a very good report.
WOLF(unintelligible) was bipartisan. Well, you can get Tom Coburn, who's one of the most conservative senators, and Dick Durbin, one of the most liberal, to come together and Simpson and Bowles did. And then the president walked away from it. And by walking away from Simpson-Bowles, we had to vote about a month and a half ago in the House. There were 38 of us that voted for Simpson-Bowles. I don't think there's any other way.
WOLF1And so I think people see the economy really bad. The numbers that came out today with regard to growth for the quarter is not very good. So I think we will carry the state of Virginia for...
NNAMDIAnd then you -- go ahead, please, Tom.
SHERWOODI just want to finish this up. Some people on the other side might complain that the Senate majority leader said early on in the Obama administration that his number one goal was to do everything he can to defeat him, which suggested that there wouldn't be...
WOLFWell, I'm not -- listen, I have -- my wife and I, we have 16 grandkids. I want the best for this country. I think you're going to reach a point -- and I am -- I do work across the aisle. Actually, my very best friend in Congress is Congressman Tony Hall, a Democrat from Ohio. We've been friends for 32 years. We're -- we...
SHERWOODSo you're both the problem.
WOLFSo, yeah, I mean, if you start out to -- I mean -- but I think where we are, Tom, the country's in trouble. And I think the ultimate -- the worst decision, I think, President Obama made was when he walked away from Simpson-Bowles.
NNAMDIWell, now that you mentioned Simpson-Bowles, Congressman Wolf, the -- one of the reasons why the delegation was meeting last week had to do with sequestration and the possibility that Virginia could lose over 100,000 military jobs as a consequence of the so-called super committee failing to agree on a compromise over long-term debt issues. You have called multiple times for what you call a safe commission. What would that body do, and why do you feel it will have a better chance of succeeding than the super committee?
WOLFWell, what our commission did -- our commission was basically that, and it was Jim Cooper, a Democrat, and myself that had it -- was basically a Simpson-Bowles. But what we had in it, we required that there to be a vote. You could not walk away from it. You could vote no, but you -- we required that you vote it up or down. And what happened is it got tangled up in politics. The president walked away from it, and it never came up.
WOLFSo that's the difference and, frankly, I think, where we're going to go this year. Kojo, Simpson-Bowles will be back up. It'll be back up shortly after the November election. It deals with the entitlements. It deals with closing tax loopholes. You know, in 2010, GE paid no taxes. They filed 57,000 pages of tax returns, and they paid no taxes. And yet I checked the Library of Congress. They were one of the largest tax-paying companies in China.
WOLFWe're borrowing 40 percent of -- cents of every dollar, a lot from China. China has violated human rights, plundering Tibet, spying against us, so -- but I think what ours differed was we mandated that the Congress and the administration could not walk away from it. They had to take a position, and there had to be an up or down vote.
SHERWOODLet me ask you one quick question before you go on -- you may have missed my rant on it before you got on the phone -- ...
WOLFI did, yeah.
SHERWOOD...the commuter tax. Darrell Issa, your good friend and colleague, the Republican from California, suggesting that we ought to have some hearings on the ban of a commuter tax in the city, that Maryland and Virginia are benefiting substantially from taxes from incomes earned in the District. I know you represent the suburbs where a lot of those folks live, but what's your own view? Are you willing to discuss this subject?
WOLFTom, I am totally opposed to commuter tax. I think the entire delegation in Virginia, Republican and Democrat -- I think Mr. Moran, Mr. Connolly -- are. In Maryland, the same way. I think Mr. Van Hollen and Mr. Hoyer are.
SHERWOODBut that's 'cause you'll get all the money.
WOLFListen to me. One other thing: Honestly, Tom, I believe it would be bad for the District of Columbia. It would drive businesses out of the District of Columbia. There would be a major effort to empty the District of Columbia. I have never, never favored commuter tax. My dad was a policeman in the city of Philadelphia. And in Philadelphia, they had a commuter tax, but yet you had to live in the city if you were a policeman, and you just lost the flexibility of people moving around.
WOLFSo I -- this is a region. This is the Washington metropolitan region. I don't think there ought to be a tax for someone who lives in the District or works in Fairfax County or vice versa. And if you look at 66, the reverse commute is almost as heavy as the one going in. So if the District put one in, Arlington would put one in. And it would divide the area. And, lastly, Tom, I think it would end the federal payment to the District.
WOLFThe federal payment to the District would just go away.
SHERWOODWell, it is more complicated than just for or against it. Maybe we'll talk about it another time.
WOLFOh, sure. Any time.
SHERWOODOK. All right. Thank you.
NNAMDIWell, what you asked the congressman was whether or not it's something he'd be willing to discuss.
SHERWOODTo discuss. He said no.
WOLFNo, I'm opposed to it. No, I'm opposed to it. And I think it would be bad for the region...
SHERWOODOpposed to discussing it.
NNAMDIEnd of discussion.
WOLF...and it would be bad for the District of Columbia.
NNAMDICongressman Wolf, thank you for joining us.
WOLFOK. Thank you very much.
SHERWOODThank you. Thank you.
NNAMDIFrank Wolf is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He's a Republican from Virginia who's been around long enough to remember when Tom Sherwood used to cover Virginia.
SHERWOODAnd he wasn't there, though, when, you know, when Maryland and Virginia congressmen put that in the home rule charter that the city couldn't tax people unlike any other place in America. But go ahead.
NNAMDIJoining us now in studio is Libby Garvey. She is a member of the Arlington County Board. She's a Democrat. Libby Garvey, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. LIBBY GARVEYI'm delighted to be here, Kojo. Thank you.
NNAMDIYour colleagues passed a plan this week to build a 4.5-mile streetcar line in the county, a vote from which you abstained. Why did you decide not to cast your lot on any side, and what information would have made you more comfortable taking a vote?
GARVEYWell, first, the vote was not really as simple as deciding to build it. We've been moving down this track -- no pun intended -- for some time, and the vote was actually to accept a report to say that was the preferred option and to go forth with requesting funding. And as I said at the board table, the real final vote will be when we actually sign -- you know, vote to sign a contract and hire a contractor, and that's probably one to two years away.
GARVEYAnd this whole issue is very complex. As you know, I had 15 years on the school board, so transportation was not an issue I looked at too closely, except for when it concerned school buses. And I came on to the board. There are many people, who I respect quite a bit, who support it. And I -- but I have to start looking at it. And as I started looking at this issue, first I think the transit world has changed a lot since we first started down this track.
GARVEYModern bus systems have improved quite a bit and really look and operate like a rail system, from what I can see. So this is a tremendously important issue. I said I suspect, coming down the line, it's going to be the most maybe important vote I will ever cast on the board, and I'm planning to be on the board for some time. But what we need, as a community, is a really good discussion. We need more light and less heat. And the best way I know how to do that is real conversation.
SHERWOODYou know, those are -- are those -- are you reading from notes there?
GARVEYI am reading from notes, so I am succinct.
SHERWOODOh, talking points.
GARVEYThose are talking points.
SHERWOODI have notes, too. OK. It's good.
GARVEYOh, it's fine. No, I need talking points, so I can be concise.
NNAMDIHe doesn't have any notes.
SHERWOODI have -- I only have notes over here.
GARVEYActually, yours are thicker than mine, Tom.
SHERWOODYours are much neater, though.
GARVEYWell, yours are thicker than mine. Can I finish? 'Cause I'm actually getting to the final point...
GARVEY...was the main point I wanted to make. I was trying to do notes, so I'd get to it fast enough.
GARVEYIf I took a position, why would anyone talk to me? And I want people to talk to me. I am telling them, and I am honest about it. Convince me. Right now, what I see is I cannot see why would we want to build a rail system instead of a bus system. But I am absolutely willing to be convinced, and I want to have a lot of good strong discussions and healthy discussions. And that's what we need.
SHERWOODAre you for a rapid bus system...
GARVEYI have -- at this point...
SHERWOOD...with dedicated lanes?
GARVEYAt this point, where I am and what I said is, at this point, I cannot see the difference between a bus, modern bus, and a modern streetcar, except that the streetcar needs tracks and rails.
GARVEYThey look the same, operate the same. They really -- if you -- are the same.
NNAMDIIf you have questions and comments on this or any other issue for Libby Garvey of the Arlington County Board, you can call us at 800-433-8850. You just got on the board through a special election, but you're on the ballot in the fall. The Sun Gazette newspaper ran an article this week where Republicans said their strategy is going to be to run against the streetcar and to run against you for not casting a vote. How do you plan to -- well, you've already explained what you did, and I guess that's the case you're going to take to the voters?
GARVEYExactly. It's the way I kind of operate. And as an elected official, as a public leader, I need to work with my community, bring everybody together and come as much as possible to consensus. And as we started out, my sense is that there's a lot of heat going on, a lot of misunderstanding, and we need some really good information out there and good discussion. That's what Arlington needs, and that's what I can bring.
SHERWOODBut that doesn't sound like an action plan. It sounds like a -- it sounds like the waterfront plan in Alexandria where they talked about it for a decade. But the transportation problems are now -- are there short-term things that you would support to try to fix the transportation issues? I mean...
SHERWOODWhat we're talking about is years in the making, whether you're for it or against it. But, again, on bus lanes, would you want dedicated bus lanes?
GARVEYWell, thank you for the question because, as I looked into it, it was with great relief I realize that we have been doing a lot to work through -- for a streetcar. Some of that is dedicated lanes in the Crystal City area. On the Columbia Pike we cannot do dedicated lanes. But, happily, all of the things we have done basically to put in line -- to put in the tracks and get the stations set up will work for a modern bus system just as well as a streetcar. So the investments we've made will work for either system, and that's a great thing.
NNAMDIPut on your headphone, please, because, speaking of transportation, we have Alan in Northwest Washington, who has a question that deals with transportation. Alan, your turn.
ALANOh, hi, Libby. I'm an old friend of Kennan Garvey, your late husband. I worked on EPA, played on the EPA Pesticidal Maniacs softball team.
GARVEYI remember that team, yeah. Thanks. Nice to hear from you, Alan.
ALANYeah. And I just came across a photo of the team with Kennan. And he was just a great player and a great cyclist. So I'm wondering how cycling -- and I know you cycle as well and your family does -- how that fits in to transportation. It certainly is really big in Washington with the bike share things going on. But in terms of encouraging employers to, you know, devote showers to people and giving them incentives, like they have incentives for parking and incentives for Metro passes, how about bike incentives?
GARVEYI think we do quite a lot of bike incentives in Arlington already. I think you know the bike share program which we're working with the District on. And one of the things we do as buildings develop is that we ask that the developer in exchange for more height, which gives them more money, to help us with better transportation and transportation demand management and that includes -- would include things like showers, bike racks and things to make biking easier.
GARVEYAnd, in fact, back to the streetcar, one of the strongest groups that are upset about the streetcar are cyclists because tracks, as you know and I know, are deadly for bicyclists. You don't want to get your wheels caught in the tracks. And Columbia Pike right now, there are a number of cyclists that use that. You get the streetcar on there -- it'll become a lot dicier.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Alan. I have another call on the issue of streetcars. Here is Carl in Washington, D.C. Carl, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARLHi. I have to dissent about the difference between streetcars and buses. Buses use tires obviously on pavement. Streetcars use steel wheels on steel rails. Steel wheels on steel rails are second only to water for moving a load. That's why you can see someone in a rail yard with one crowbar move an entire freight car, the rolling friction is far less, therefore it is much more efficient. That's why, for example, the Montreal Subway, which uses tires, has not been emulated by any other subway because they're far less efficient. And I think your guest is not taking this into account.
NNAMDIIs that something you are prepared to take into account as you consider this, Libby Garvey?
GARVEYIt absolutely is because, as I am doing research, that's one of the things that has been pointed out to me. So I'm very aware of that. There are going to be some strengths on both sides, I think, when you do a final cost-benefit analysis. What I'm concerned about is the benefit of a streetcar -- of a bus rapid transit system will be more than a rail system. If money were no factor, then we could do that because -- except for of course the overhead wires. And let's just talk a little bit about the environment and electricity.
GARVEYIf you get your electricity from coal -- in this area, I believe we do -- then I think you could argue that an electric system -- transportation system actually is more destructive of the environment than is a system running on, you know, petrocarbons. And we don't want to have that damage as...
SHERWOODWorse than bus pollution?
GARVEYYeah. Well, if you get modern buses...
SHERWOODReally, gasoline, exhaust and all that?
GARVEYYou have to look at where the coal -- think of mountaintop mining. Think of burning.
SHERWOODNo, I'm thinking about -- I'm talking about Arlington. I've never choked behind a train going by, but I've choked behind a big bus going by.
GARVEYHow about natural gas, and how about a battery-operated bus, which we should be able to get to?
SHERWOODOK. So that would be part of it.
NNAMDICarl, thank you for very much for your call. The board spent a lot of hours this week examining a housing and land use plan for Columbia Pike. A lot of people are concerned about whether that plan is going to push out affordable housing in order to make room for dense development tailored for new residents and new businesses. How do you see it?
GARVEYI think that's a real concern. I think when I started out, I said that the streetcar, I thought, would be the most important vote. I think the largest and most complex issue I'm going to be facing is affordable housing because all of the market forces are against this. No matter what kind of transportation system we end up using on the Pike, market forces are going to continue to have development.
GARVEYWe're working very hard to support affordable housing, and I'm very pleased we've got actually a study coming up because there are many people that say just more money, more money, more money. And, clearly, we're going to need some more money, but we need to make sure we got the best value for the money that we put into affordable housing. And there are many ways of doing that. We had nonprofits that supply the housing. You can do subsidies. You can do tax, you know, tax incentives.
GARVEYThere are many different tools that we have, and we need a really good study of that to figure out which we're going to use moving forward and set some really clear goals because this is a huge issue for our county.
SHERWOODI realize I'm the impatient reporter, but if you're going to study at length whether we should have buses or rails, were to study at length whether how we're going to have housing changes, when will something be decided? I mean...
GARVEYThe affordable housing study? We have deadlines for when these are coming in.
SHERWOODOK. I just find -- what is the population now of your county?
GARVEYAbout 200 -- excuse me, yes, 200 -- a hundred and -- 220,000 I believe it is. Excuse me. I'm new with this. I could tell you the school population. So let me say, actually, if you look...
SHERWOODWhat is the school population?
GARVEYIt's about 22,000. And we are...
GARVEY...going up by over an elementary school...
SHERWOODThis whole region is booming.
GARVEYIt is. And let me tell you back to your question about the studying issue 'cause I get criticism for that. If you look at how I've operated on the schools side for 15 years, we have had studies, and they enable you to get good information and make good decisions. And we haven't wasted time on doing study after study. We get a study done, we look at it, and we vote. And we move forward. And that's something, actually, I hope I can help bring to the county board, so the affordable housing study is coming in about six months. We're already putting quite a bit more in. The...
SHERWOODBut you did mention those market forces, and those market forces are fierce, both in the District and the entire region..
SHERWOOD...where homes are being lost, the lower working middle-class homes are being lost or not provided.
GARVEYAbsolutely. Which is why we need to be really smart about how we address it. And when it comes to the streetcar, I don't anticipate my study is going to take years. I need to -- I'm not sure exactly how long it's going to go. But if I do decide that a bus rapid transit system is the way we need to go rather than a streetcar, I need a lot of time to actually work with the community, work with colleagues, work this issue through. And I am on a deadline there because, as I say, I think this will be coming to us in about a year or two.
NNAMDIYou also declared this week that Arlington County is not Yosemite when you argued against banning signs in the county over 40 feet. The board ultimately accepted, adopted a sign ordinance that places limits on design and size without a ban. Why do you feel Arlington would be a cold place without signs? And how did you feel about the result that came out of the board?
GARVEYI thought the result was good. One of the things that struck me is how personal this issue was. So I was taken on a tour by folks to look at signs, and I hadn't really paid attention. And while some people -- it was very interesting, some would say look at that sign. I would look at it, and I'd think, wow, that's kind of pretty. I like that. And then I'm just about to say that, and the person would, say it's that terrible -- that's a terrible-looking sign. So it's very personal.
GARVEYAnd, as I said, actually at the board table, I had a couple of experiences recently. I have a place out in Shenandoah that a friend lets me use and we go out there and there are no lights. And all you can see is stars at night. I love it. But when I come home, as I did after the derecho storm, and found no lights in my neighborhood, it was kind of sad. And when I look across the river and look at the city in Arlington and all of those twinkling colored lights, that tells me this is Arlington. This is where we are.
GARVEYWe talk about being an urban village. An urban village has got the urban aspects, and that includes the lights. And done well, I think they make it an attractive, exciting, vibrant place to be. And then, of course, we've got a lot of neighborhoods, and we do not have signs in those neighborhoods. And we're not going to bit signs, that is.
NNAMDIFinal question from you, Tom.
SHERWOODWell, I was going to ask a question about the signs, I mean, because who decides whether a sign is too big or too small or too bright or too dull or fancy?
NNAMDIThere are people who decide these things.
SHERWOODI mean, it just sounds incredibly bureaucratic to me. But we just had a big fight at the Verizon Center with signs, whether we would have -- are you in favor of screens -- what's the word I'm looking for, screens...
SHERWOODOh, the video screens.
SHERWOODVideo screens, yes. Is that...
GARVEYWe actually -- part of the vote was about setting standards for signs and making it clear. And so I -- and this is a very complex issue that we voted on. And video screens, all of these different signs were included in there so that anybody wanting to build can look now and see what the standard is, and we know what were doing. And that's the way we need to govern.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. We had a caller, Oscar, who wanted to talk about poor test scores from D.C. public schools that came out yesterday. We'll discuss that in the future.
GARVEYLibby Garvey, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDILibby Garvey is a member of the Arlington County Board. She is a Democrat. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He is an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers.
SHERWOODOlympics tonight, opening ceremony. I'll be watching.
NNAMDIOpening ceremony tonight. It's one of my favorite things of the year.
SHERWOODI think it's on NBC, but I'm not sure.
NNAMDIIt is on NBC at 7:30. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Tuesday, Feb 21 2017A comic book once inspired Congressman John Lewis to learn about the early days of the civil rights movement, and engage in activism himself. Now, a new generation of readers is learning about civil rights history through his comics.
Monday, Feb 20 2017When a local journalist placed her father into long-term Alzheimer's care, she wrote down his life story and introduced his nursing staff – not to an anonymous patient– but to the father she loved.
Monday, Feb 20 2017Legislation to quicken the timeline for increasing the use of renewable energy in Maryland overcame a veto and widespread Republican opposition to move forward with becoming law. Kojo explores the politics at play as well as what the change will mean for Maryland and the rest of the region.