Sherwood's Notebook: Pulling the Plug, But Not So Fast!

Mayor Muriel Bowser has pulled the plug on FreshPAC.

The ill-fated “independent” political action committee is still being denounced as wrong-headed, foolish and politically damaging to Bowser’s reform image. Even many of her allies privately bemoaned the gambit.

But pivoting from FreshPAC is not the end of the story.

Bowser supporters and appointees created both the PAC and the controversy with hard-edged fundraising among people with city contracts.

And there still are serious unanswered questions about FreshPAC’s creation, how it sought contributions, and from whom.

Many think no question is bigger than this: Did FreshPAC aggressively seek big cash contributions from Pepco and Exelon even as their proposed $6 billion merger hung in the balance and as Bowser was negotiating a revised deal she could support before the Public Service Commission?

Astonishingly, FreshPAC, Pepco and Exelon so far have each publicly and bluntly refused to comment on whether a big ask was made.

It’s relevant because the Public Service Commission is even now in the midst of reconsidering the power company merger that will have lasting effects on tens of thousands of customers. Perhaps the groups opposing the merger — or the commission itself — will inquire in upcoming public hearings.

All three entities — FreshPAC, Pepco and Exelon — have issued statements saying that no money was given to FreshPAC, but they all skirt the issue of who, if anyone, put the arm on the companies to contribute. Sources who have declined to be identified so they can speak freely about FreshPAC have told your Notebook that Pepco and Exelon rightly — and to their credit — declined to give money to FreshPAC, saying it was inappropriate at the time.

The Notebook takes no side on whether the Pepco-Exelon merger is a good deal or not for District citizens, but public disclosure of the process ought to be clearer than it stands right now.

Did FreshPAC seek to benefit financially from two vulnerable power companies?

Did FreshPAC influence the merger deal even as Bowser was negotiating revised terms?

Who, if anyone, representing FreshPAC made the requests? What did they say to Pepco and Exelon executives?

Mayor Bowser first told NBC4 before leaving for China that she was unaware of any such solicitation.

Last Friday, in her long-distance news conference call from China, she told NBC4’s Mark Segraves that she still doesn’t know if a solicitation was made, but she added that she wouldn’t approve of such a solicitation if it were. She declined to comment on whether the three parties should disclose any interaction.

Here’s the exchange:

NBC4’s Segraves: “Would you instruct your supporters at FreshPAC to answer that question [about donations]? And secondly, [Washington Post columnist] Colby King said [FreshPac] was arrogant and stupid. What do you think this does to your image as a reform mayor?”

Mayor Bowser: “Well, I think that everybody should recognize that the supporters of, the leaders of FreshPAC made a hard pivot away from it. And they recognize the level of criticism despite the fact that it was operating completely transparently and aboveboard, and recognize that any distraction from the important work we have to do was not, was not something that I would support.

“As it relates to the questions about Exelon or Pepco, I’m not aware of anybody reaching out to them or soliciting anything from them, nor would I approve of it if I knew about it. And so, that is not something that I think that the PAC should have been involved in and I don’t know that the PAC was involved.”

Associates of the mayor say the news conference call from China was intended to both promote the positive aspects of the city business trip — a good thing — but also maybe to dampen the media attention she’d receive upon her return.

The mayor said in that Friday news conference that FreshPAC had been “operating completely transparently and aboveboard.” It may take a few more answers before that assertion is verified.

King, the veteran observer of city politics for The Post, says the pay-to-play nature of FreshPAC demands more answers. Writing in his Saturday column, he asked, “Any interest, D.C. inspector general, D.C. attorney general or D.C. ethics board? Or does the U.S. attorney have to do the job for the city?”

King also noted that opponents of the merger are screaming that Pepco suddenly came up with a $25 million donation for fuzzy naming rights to the city’s new soccer stadium project just as the mayor was involving herself in the merger.

In a telephone call last week, Bowser strongly defended her ethics, saying nothing in her political career suggests she would do something unethical or illegal. The Notebook notes that no one has made a specific charge that Bowser herself has done something improper. Most all of the questions go to the people surrounding the PAC, what they knew and what they did.

King, who wrote a previous column asking “who will save” Bowser from her development-oriented friends, noted that opponents of the soccer-Pepco deal have asked the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability to look into Pepco’s sponsorship agreement.

And he wrote, “Bowser wittingly decided to get behind the creation of a richly funded political vehicle launched to reward friends and punish enemies, in the finest tradition of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. That is likely to be an issue that will bleed into next year, and in ways that Bowser and her political crew never expected.”

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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