Page residence hall under surveillance?

Another political sex scandal, another group of transient Washington residents become gossip fodder. Before, it was White House interns. Now it’s congressional pages.

Another political sex scandal, another group of transient Washington residents become gossip fodder. Before, it was White House interns. Now it’s congressional pages.

Too bad for gossips the numerous pages are completely shut off from the rest of the city. They’ve got a 10 p.m. curfew, and they’re too young to get into bars anyway, so there are no juicy tidbits about them misbehaving at the Capitol Lounge.

The House of Representatives pages live on 1st Street S.E., sequestered in a brown brick fortress surrounded by a black fence. The building is patrolled by the U.S. Capitol Police, and there’s a lobby desk manned by a Capitol Police officer 24 hours a day. This officer has an array of televisions displaying feeds from the various security cameras on the building exterior. In addition to the two traditional-looking cameras trained on the building’s entrances, there are five of the more modern dome-shaped cameras on the roof.

In 2005, when the Capitol Police began to install an extensive network of surveillance cameras throughout the neighborhood, I went into the residence hall to try and chat with the guard at the desk. He refused to identify himself and made me put my notepad and jacket through the metal detector. (When I later asked if I could talk to the pages, a group of whom were staring at me from behind the metal detector, he nearly had a conniption.)

About the cameras: The officer boasted of their ability to swivel and zoom, and said they were used for “surveillance and counter-surveillance” — in other words, that if they saw somebody spying on the camera, they would focus on that person. That’s probably just bloviation. A handful of neighbors polled were generally indifferent to the cameras, if not glad for the extra security (despite a loud and apparently pointless alarm that beeps for hours at odd times every day).

“They’re nice young kids,” says Donna Barbisch, a homeland security consultant who lives across the street from the dorms. She says she was irritated to see TV camera crews pointing their cameras at the building last week, and considered going outside to give them an earful.

And why did the Mark Foley story blow up? According to an Oct. 3 story in The New York Times, it blew up because of some drunk Hill residents at a Hill bar: “[I]n June, the reports resurfaced on Capitol Hill, where a neighborhood resident struck up a conversation in a bar with someone who had provided the e-mail messages. He said he passed them on to several news outlets. The resident, who said he was not affiliated with either party and was motivated by concern for the teenager, would talk only on condition of anonymity.”

Good thing the cops and the neighbors want to protect these kids from the criminals and reporters. Too bad you can’t say the same for members of Congress.


 Bad business

A scrappy newspaper for the littlest Little Guy has delivered a solid jab to The Man by exposing the most heinous day-labor exploitation — the hiring of homeless people to carry out evictions for less than $2 an hour.

Street Sense — a newspaper by, for, and about the D.C. area homeless — first reported on the evictions in April. It works just like any other kind of day-labor employment: A crowd hangs around until a van shows up and somebody hollers, “Anyone want to work?”

But this case adds the sick twist that homeless people are being hired to put evictees’ belongings on the curb. That’s homeless people making more homeless people — and being paid criminally low wages to do it.

Cleary Gottlieb attorney and Capitol Hill resident Lee Berger bought a copy of Street Sense on his way to the Metro in April. He says he re-read the article three times during his ride from Eastern Market, getting madder and madder each time.

“By the time I got to work I was in fits,” Berger says. So he started doing research, looking to sue the bad guys. 

The September class-action suit alleges that a group of evictions companies has conspired to rip off the homeless since 2002. Allegedly, the various companies — including one called “All American Eviction” — have had some kind of agreement to pay the same miserable rate of $5 per eviction, which typically amounts to less than $2 an hour for a day’s work. These types of evictions have allegedly happened to thousands of people.

“I haven’t had any part in it,” says Caroline Lansford, who is listed as chief executive officer on the All American Eviction website. She says All American Eviction merged with East Coast Express Eviction in 2004 or 2005, and that she “had no part” in the rip-off evictions. She doesn’t deny that they happened.

(Lansford told The Wall Street Journal, which reported on the Street Sense scoop in June, that her company hadn’t done evictions in “some time.” The new excuse that All American Eviction merged with East Coast Eviction is sort of different from the old excuse — I’d say this woman doesn’t have her story straight.)

“I consider it a victory,” says Street Sense executive director Laura Thompson Osuri, who wrote the April article. By no account have the eviction companies quit hiring and underpaying homeless people, but the lawyers are confident the practice will cease eventually. The stated mission of Street Sense is to make the public more aware of issues relating to poverty and homelessness. Kudos to Street Sense for exposing an All American Rip-off.


Losing the boozing — and the character — of a neighborhood

The Woodward building at 15th and H Street N.W. — the last low-rent downtown office building in Washington, they say — has shooed away its oddball tenants for major renovations at the end of the year to make way for high-end apartments, an upscale restaurant, and some kind of fancy chain like Ann Taylor. Say bye-bye to the drafts, the dust, the pigeon crap, and the old tenants — the Christian bookstore, the bikini shop, and the private investigator. Now that whole scene is material for a bad novel. Where will the character go?

The Woodward liquor store tried to come to Northeast Capitol Hill, only to be met with a resounding “NO!” from the H Street community. You can’t blame them; H Street already has a surplus of liquor stores, and more would probably not help the revitalization process. Woodward Liquors owner Varinder Kumar Dutt withdrew his liquor license application in the face of the protests by the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC).

A few blocks south, the local ANC voted unanimously not to oppose a liquor license application by Harris Teeter, a supermarket coming to the 1400 block of Pennsylvania Avenue S.E. — another area with a few blighty-looking liquor stores.

“Liquor stores need to clean up their act. They have been put on notice,” says ANC Commissioner Neil Glick, who is looking forward to having another place to buy smoked salmon.

Harris Teeter, of course, is much different from a corner liquor store — it’s a big corporate chain that markets itself on a squeaky-clean-and-conscientious image, with a stated commitment to community involvement. It’s good and all, but I wish I could picture the Woodward building’s private eye or bikini salesman buying organic soymilk there.