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THE DISTRICT’S POWER BEHIND THE SCENES

Washington Post-connected business group

wields influence over city’s legislative agenda

(Published December 13, 1999)

One of an occasional series

By KATHRYN SINZINGER

Staff Writer

An exclusive group of largely wealthy Washington area business people has for years been working behind the scenes with the city’s political leaders to advance its own agenda for the nation’s capital – often without D.C. residents’ input and almost always without wide knowledge of its efforts.

Legislative influence of the group, which has close ties to the Washington Post, extends from the D.C. City Council and the mayor’s office to the halls of Congress and the White House, according to sources interviewed for this story. Since the Kennedy administration in the early 1960s, even the president’s Cabinet and other key federal officials have been considered ex officio advisers.

Membership in the private and generally secretive group, called the Federal City Council, is highly selective. Washington Post Publisher Donald E. Graham serves as nominating committee chairman for the organization, which was founded in 1954 by his father, the late Post Publisher Philip L. Graham. Seed money for the group’s formation came from the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, named for the parents of Katharine Graham, chairman of the Washington Post Co. executive committee.

"They’re controlling the city and it’s a problem," said Sandra Seegars, a longtime Ward 8 activist and recent appointee to the D.C. Taxicab Commission. "It’s a secret group that’s in the background pushing buttons and pulling strings, but nobody knows who they are."

A spokesman for the Federal City Council declined to cooperate on this story, except to provide a copy of the group’s 1999 annual report and a directory of the group’s members, called "trustees," which was published in January 1999. (A list of Federal City Council members is published on pages 12-13.)

"We don’t seek publicity," said David Perry, the organization’s deputy director.

Files in the D.C. Public Library’s Washingtoniana collection show the Federal City Council’s founding and early projects received prominent coverage in both the Washington Post and the now-defunct Evening Star. However, except for newspaper clippings of the group’s first 10 years of activities, the library’s information about the Federal City Council is sparse.

Librarian Matthew Gilmore noted with a chuckle that files about the Federal City Council "disappear" from the library’s collection almost as soon as they get created.

Among the Federal City Council’s current projects, according to its annual report:

The Federal City Council recently disbanded its 10-year-old D.C. Committee on Public Education and created in its place the D.C. Public Charter School Resource Center, which operates from the group’s offices at 1155 15th St. NW, across the street from the Washington Post.

D.C Agenda, a somewhat more widely known group also housed at 1155 15th St. NW, was created in 1994 as a Federal City Council project. D.C. Agenda, according to information on its Web site at www.dcagenda.org, is a nonprofit organization "dedicated to solving District problems through collaboration of the broadest range of community leaders." Its membership includes many Federal City Council members, as well as Julie L. Rogers, president of the Meyer Foundation; Robert Moore, president of the Columbia Heights Community Development Corp.; Maudine Cooper, president of the Greater Washington Urban League and chairman of the appointed Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees; Linda Lee, vice president of South Island Restaurant Inc.; and Gladys W. Mack, deputy executive director of the United Planning Organization.

Francis S. Smith, executive director of the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority (the "control board"), acknowledges that he and his predecessor, John Hill, have "interacted with" the Federal City Council since the control board was created by President Clinton and Congress in 1995. Hill left the control board staff to take a position with Arthur Andersen, an accounting firm affiliated with the Federal City Council.

"I know we have always paid a lot of attention to what they’ve had to say. We have tried to cooperate with them," Smith said of the Federal City Council.

Control board records, provided in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act, show the control board has awarded at least 24 contracts valued at nearly $20.4 million to businesses affiliated with the Federal City Council during the past four years. About $3.8 million of those tax dollars were committed under non-competitive "sole source" contracts, with another $4.8 million awarded for "modifications" to the contracts after they were awarded.

The 11 firms which hold Federal City Council membership that were awarded the contracts are KPMG Peat Marwick; Arthur Andersen; Booz, Allen and Hamilton; Lockheed-Martin; Price Waterhouse; Carey Winston; Hogan and Hartson; Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick and Lane; Hunton and Williams; Arnold and Porter; and Shaw, Pittman, Potts and Trowbridge.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, who chairs the D.C. oversight subcommittee in the House of Representatives, said the Federal City Council is "one of many voices we hear."

"They’ve made some good suggestions….They’re certainly a voice that we listen to," said Davis spokesman David Marin.

D.C. City Councilman Jack Evans, D-Ward 2, said he suspects he has had more contact with the Federal City Council than most of his council colleagues because "as a general proposition, the Federal City Council is focused on downtown, which is part of Ward 2 which I represent." Evans called the group "instrumental in bringing together (Washington Wizards owner) Abe Pollin and Mayor (Sharon Pratt) Kelly" to get the MCI Center built in Chinatown.

Evans acknowledges a personal friendship with Kenneth R. Sparks, the organization’s executive vice president and staff director. And he said he thinks it is "absolutely" appropriate for a private business group like the Federal City Council to have close ties with the city government.

"In other cities, I think the business community is much more involved than here," Evans said.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams recently was the featured speaker at a Federal City Council luncheon, which was not open to the public. Talking points prepared for his speech noted the business group’s importance to the city.

Former Kansas senator Robert J. Dole, the current president of the Federal City Council and the 1996 Republican presidential nominee, was co-chairman of the mayor’s transition committee as he prepared to take office almost a year ago. Mayoral spokeswoman Peggy Armstrong characterized the Federal City Council as "one of a number of business organizations that has said ‘What’s your vision? How can we help?’"

"We work with D.C. Agenda all the time," Armstrong said. "They were helpful in putting together Neighborhood Action," the mayor’s Citizen Summit that attracted about 2,600 people to a day-long meeting Nov. 20 at the convention center.

Ward 5 activist Angela Rooney, who was among participants at the mayor’s recent Citizen Summit, said Mayor Williams’ connections to groups like D.C. Agenda and the Federal City Council concern her.

"They’ve always been the archenemy," Rooney said of the group she came to know during a 15-year battle she and neighbors waged against the Federal City Council-backed effort to extend Interstate 95 through the heart of Northeast Washington’s Brookland community. The plan, if carried out, would have destroyed numerous homes in one of the city’s most stable working-class areas.

"If you want to know who runs everything, it’s the Federal City Council," she said.

"They play a wonderful game…They would have a gold plan, a red plan, a blue plan, but the citizens never saw the gold plan, which is what they really wanted to do."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator