Judge dismisses lawsuit against D.C. Council member Jim Graham

Judge dismisses lawsuit against D.C. Council member Jim Graham

By Ann E. Marimow, Washington Post, Thursday, February 6, 12:11 PM

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit Thursday against D.C. Council member Jim Graham, involving a disputed Metro real-estate deal.

The development company, Banneker Ventures, had alleged that Graham (D-Ward 1) illegally interfered in its efforts to build a development on Metro-owned landin the Shaw neighborhood during Graham’s tenure on the transit agency’s board.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer said that Graham is immune from legal action in this instance because he was acting in his official capacity as a member of the board of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

“It is important that WMATA officials be free to make complex decisions regarding large real-estate projects, which are often controversial, without fear of suit,” she wrote. “Mr. Graham’s challenged actions were discretionary.”

An independent investigation ordered by the Metro board concluded that Graham violated ethics rules by improperly mixing his roles as a council member and as a Metro board member when he attempted to influence the plans for a residential and retail development.

Graham told Banneker representatives in 2008, according to investigators, that he would support their bid to run the D.C. Lottery if the firm dropped out of the running for the development on Florida Avenue NW.

Graham favored another developer — LaKritz Adler, of the District, which was also named as a defendant and dismissed from the lawsuit Thursday as a result of Collyer’s opinion.

In its lawsuit filed last year, Banneker said Graham was driven by “political calculus and personal animus.” But public officials are legally protected in their official capacity, Collyer wrote, even when their actions are politically motivated.

In a 26-page opinion, Collyer noted that Graham’s “poor behavior” had already been addressed through an official reprimand by the D.C. Council last February and that he is subject to reelection by D.C. voters.

In addition, Collyer rejected Banneker’s claim that Graham’s actions amounted to a breach of contract. Banneker’s agreement, she said, was not a “valid and enforceable contract” until it was approved by the board.

Banneker’s deal with Metro ended after the board voted to table its negotiations with the company in March 2010. Metro sold the Florida Avenue property in 2011 to JBG for $10.2 million.

Graham said Thursday that he was pleased with the judge’s quick decision.

“Now we can put all of this behind us and get on with the future of Ward 1 and the city,” he said. “To have it finished is a great relief.”

Staff writer Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.

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