Anger Lurks in D.C.’s Shadow Senator Race

Posted October 22, 2008 at 6:03pm

Correction Appended

The District’s shadow Senator may serve in a largely ceremonial position, but the race for the unpaid seat has become uncharacteristically negative in recent weeks.

It began with a D.C. Auditor’s report that harshly criticized Democratic incumbent Paul Strauss’ performance as chairman of the D.C. Board of Real Property Assessments and Appeals.

Now, D.C. Republicans are not only questioning shadow Sen. Strauss’ management skills, but also whether he accepted improper campaign contributions and is legally allowed to hold both an appointed D.C. position and an elected seat.

“I think it would affect his credibility to represent the D.C. political interests on Capitol Hill by having this ethical cloud hanging over him,” said Strauss’ long-shot Republican opponent, Nelson Rimensnyder.

Strauss has been D.C.’s shadow Senator for 12 years, working part time throughout as chairman of the BRPAA. He’s been able to easily keep his seat over the years, winning a large majority of votes as a Democrat running in a largely Democratic city.

The D.C. Auditor’s report, Strauss said, was unnecessarily harsh but doesn’t include any allegations of illegal conduct. And federal officials long ago determined that he wasn’t covered by the Hatch Act, which prohibits some officials from holding simultaneous appointed and elected positions.

“You know, we did nothing wrong. … There’s not even a hint or suggestion of any illegal activity,” he said. “It’s mere advice.”

“I’m not saying it’s even bad advice,” he later added. “It’s new advice.”

Rarely does the race for D.C.’s shadow Senator stir up such controversy. The position is not only unpaid, but it also isn’t recognized by Congress — making raising money for a campaign difficult and public campaigning limited.

Furthermore, the seat has one main purpose: to lobby Members for voting representation in Congress. With all candidates supporting that cause, issue distinctions are few.

But Rimensnyder has used the auditor’s report to question Strauss’ history.

The report concludes that Strauss “ignored regulations, conducted himself in a manner that created the appearance of impropriety or lack of integrity, accepted campaign donations from organizations that represented clients before BRPAA, and failed to effectively manage and improve BRPAA’s operations, performance, and stature.”

One section of the report details $1,300 in donations he received from individuals who have filed appeals with the BRPAA — and who won those appeals.

The contributions, however, were for his unsuccessful 2006 run for the Ward 3 D.C. City Council seat. Furthermore, Strauss never saw or ruled on any of the cases, and the amount is a small percentage of the $150,000 he raised for that campaign.

In a response to the auditor’s report, the BRPAA wrote that several assertions were based on inaccurate information and disagreed that the campaign contributions created any appearance of impropriety.

Strauss said he went out of his way to “maintain the highest ethical standards of conduct” by never appealing his own home’s real property assessment and never allowing any relatives to file for homestead exemption deductions or any real property tax credit.

“Although this too would have been perfectly legal, I declined to apply for these credits, simply to avoid even the appearance of anything which might have ever called into question the propriety of my conduct as Boardmember,” he wrote in an e-mail.

D.C. Republicans are also alleging, however, that he shouldn’t have been allowed to hold both his BRPAA position and his seat at shadow Senator. Strauss, they argue, should have to follow the Hatch Act like other D.C. employees.

But in 2002 and 2006, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel released an opinion that stated that Strauss was not subject to the Hatch Act, spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said. The opinion, he said, probably took into consideration the fact that Strauss’ appointed position wasn’t full time.

Such opinions aren’t made public, prompting the D.C. Republican Committee to formally request that the opinion on Strauss be released.

“I think [the opinion] was kind of hedging it,” Rimensnyder said, “because they do meet quite often and it is a paid position.”

Strauss ended his term as chairman in July and didn’t ask Mayor Adrian Fenty for reappointment. But before he became shadow Senator, he said, he checked with the D.C. Office of the Corporation Counsel (now the D.C. attorney general) to ensure he wasn’t violating any laws.

“I’m confident D.C. voters will see past this negative Republican smear,” he said.

Correction: Oct. 23, 2008

The article incorrectly characterized the D.C. Board of Real Property Assessments and Appeals’ reaction to $1,300 in campaign contributions to D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss’ unsuccessful 2006 run for the Ward 3 D.C. City Council seat. The board does not believe the contributions created any appearance of impropriety.