News & Politics

DC Council Candidates Fight About Ethics Outside Starbucks

And nobody even bothered to buy coffee.

Brianne Nadeau, right, goes over her loan documents with Council member Jim Graham. Photograph by Benjamin Freed.

DC Council member Jim Graham had to be pulled away by one of his staff when he got in the face of Brianne Nadeau, his opponent in next week’s Democratic primary.

“I’m a public official, which you will never be,” Graham barked while wagging his finger at Nadeau in the lobby of the JW Marriott Hotel in downtown DC.

Graham, 68, is running for his fifth term representing Ward 1, which includes U Street, Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, and Mount Pleasant. But his latest tactic suggests he could be running scared from Nadeau, a former aide to Representative John Sarbanes, who says she is giving Graham the toughest challenge he’s ever faced.

At issue is a city-backed loan Nadeau received in February 2009 when Nadeau, then a member of an advisory neighborhood commission, purchased a condominium on 14th St., NW, with the help of the District’s Home Purchase Assistance Program. Nadeau was originally approved in 2007 by the Greater Washington Urban League, which administers the loan program, but the offer expired late that year when she didn’t buy a home. Nadeau was first approved to receive $33,050, but that figure was cut by more than half in 2008 when her salary edged above $50,000, at which level the loan program lowers its awards.

When Nadeau was finally ready to make an offer but found out her loan offer had been reduced, she emailed Graham and then-Council Chairman Vince Gray for their assistance, saying the apartment she was eyeing was the only unit in her ANC district that she could afford. Graham supported her appeal for the original loan amount.

“First, let me express my strong support for Ms. Nadeau’s appeal here. Please do all you can,” he wrote to the Greater Washington Urban League on February 9, 2009.

The original loan amount came through that afternoon.

But Graham now accuses Nadeau of using her position as an ANC member to influence the loan process, and in return, Nadeau says Graham is using his office to win a close election. Last Friday, Graham, using his Council letterhead, sent a complaint about Nadeau’s loan application to the city’s Inspector General and to the Washington Post, which reported on the flap today.

“It’s a desperate move,” Nadeau said in front of the Starbucks coffee shop in the hotel’s lobby. “His back is against the wall. It’s very blatant.”

Nadeau also handed out copies of the loan notifications she received from the Greater Washington Urban League. On the 2007 form, she reported an annual household income of $50,000. When she re-applied the following year, she listed her income as $55,280. Nadeau, who now works for a public relations firm, said the increase came from year-end bonuses from Sarbanes’s office and not from cost-of-living increases, which she said she declined so she could remain eligible for home-purchasing assistance.

Loans issued under the Home Purchase Assistance Program defer payments for five years, and are then payable over 40 years without interest. (Incidentally, Nadeau said she made her first payment today.) But Nadeau got her loan at a time when the program, like most city operations, had its budget slashed. Even outside of lean times, the loan program prioritizes low-income, elderly, handicapped, or displaced DC residents ahead of others.

Graham, sitting inside the coffee shop, said Nadeau’s defense rings similarly to the fall of former Council Chairman Kwame Brown, who pleaded guilty to bank fraud after inflating his income on a loan application and served six months house arrest in 2012. “Kwame Brown inflated his income, Brianne Nadeau deflated it,” Graham said. “This is probably more serious than just a lost election.”

But Graham squirmed when asked if his complaint was politically motivated, claiming he is only a public official investigating possible wrongdoing by one of his constituents. When asked if he had filed similar complaints about anyone else in the past five years, Graham could not come up with a single example. He is also focused on the fact that Nadeau’s email signature in 2009 included her position as a neighborhood commissioner, but she said that was a standard insert on all of her correspondence then.

“Anyone who thinks ANCs have that kind of influence is mistaken,” she said.

Graham exited the Starbucks to find Nadeau waiting, and the rivals launched into a heated argument that culminated in the finger-wagging moment. There are no public polls for DC’s ward races, but Nadeau said her internal polling shows a neck-and-neck race. Not surprisingly, she dismissed Graham’s suggestion that he was merely acting as a concerned Council member when he contacted the Inspector General.

“Has he ever done this to another constituent or just a political opponent?” Nadeau asked. But Graham was unavailable to comment on that one, having stormed off after the finger-wagging moment.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.