Ben Wilson: A Leader Of The Environmental Bar On Giving Back To The Community

Monday, March 1, 2004 - 01:00

Editor: Would you give our readers something of your background and experience?

I started practicing in 1976. I was an associate with King & Spalding in Atlanta engaged in litigation and tax work. In 1979, I came to Washington and joined the Civil Division, Commercial Litigation Branch, of the Department of Justice. That was an excellent experience for me, and I was able to conduct a number of trials. After three years, I left government service to join a small firm called Chapman, Duff & Paul, which happened to do a great deal of work for the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority. That was my introduction to environmental law.

I became a partner in the Chapman firm in 1985. Soon, thereafter, the firm merged with a Pittsburgh firm, and an opportunity to join Beveridge & Diamond arose.

I am a litigator and try commercial, environmental, and employment cases in both federal and state courts throughout the country. The opportunity to assist a client in resolving a problem in a manner that furthers the client's long-term interests is gratifying to me. In the environmental area, the firm's client base is extremely diverse. For example, some of my clients include telecommunications, petroleum and refining, and office product companies, as well as municipalities and universities.

Our firm has a strong municipal practice. Early on, I worked with the City of New Haven. I went on to try a case for the Port of Oakland with respect to its airport expansion, and I also started doing work with, and continue to represent, the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans and the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority. In recent years, my practice has grown to include the representation of corporations and municipalities in matters relating to the emerging area of environmental justice.

Editor: I think our readers will be particularly interested in your role as lead environmental counsel in connection with the construction of a new stadium for the Washington Redskins. What were the principal challenges of that project?

The challenges we had were making certain the City obtained the necessary environmental approvals to build the stadium. The proposed site in the District was along the Anacostia River. We faced a number of issues involving development in, or near, wetlands. There were also environmental impacts on the immediate community in terms of noise and traffic that had to be addressed. Timing was also an issue. The District of Columbia obtained all the necessary approvals. Ultimately, however, a different site was chosen for the stadium for reasons unrelated to environmental issues.

After the Washington Redskins moved to Maryland, you may recall that there was a public outcry over the prospect that the professional basketball and hockey teams would build a new facility outside of Washington. It was important to the citizens that the facility be located within the District of Columbia. Our firm served as environmental and historic preservation counsel for the District of Columbia during the building of the new facility, MCI Arena. Completing the MCI Arena project on time and within budget was critical, since it is located right in downtown DC. We assisted the District of Columbia with achieving this goal.

Editor: You have also represented a number of professional athletes in contract negotiations?

Yes, I have. Over the years, I have represented more than 40 National Football League players. I have a real sense of satisfaction from having helped a number of very talented young men achieve financial security.

Editor: In addition to a very busy professional life, you have had a parallel career in civic and community activities. Will you tell us, first of all, about your role with the DC Board of Elections?

I have had the good fortune to serve on the Board of Elections and Ethics since 1990, and as Chairman of the Board since 1991. I was appointed to the Board by then Mayor Marion Barry. I was reappointed, successively, by Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, Mayor Barry (for the second time) and Mayor Anthony Williams. The Board has oversight over the entire election process. We must arrange for logistical support during the election. Our most important responsibility is to tabulate and report accurately the election results. In addition, we are responsible for resolving conflicts of interest and ethical disputes related to elections, as well as procedural disputes involving candidates for office.

Editor: The DC Board of Elections received considerable national attention with regard to the mayoral Democratic primary ballot. Can you tell us, in your role as Chairman, about this experience?

The position of Chairman of the Board of Elections and Ethics in DC is normally not one that attracts the spotlight. The Board of Elections is the guarantor of the election process, and if necessary we are called upon to defend the integrity of that process. In August of 2002, the Board was called upon to do just that with respect to the process of submitting nominations for the District of Columbia mayoral Democratic primary ballot.

During that nomination process, it came to the Board's attention that petition signatures submitted on behalf of Mayor Anthony Williams might not be legitimate. The Board held a hearing, and it was determined that, in fact, many of the signatures were not valid. The Board felt compelled to send a clear message that conduct of this sort would not be tolerated in elections in the District of Columbia. It denied Mayor Williams the right to appear on the Democratic primary ballot. The Board's decision was not an easy one to make. I would like to add that there was never any suggestion that the Mayor himself was implicated in this conduct. Ultimately, Mayor Williams was reelected as a write-in candidate.

Editor: Are you involved in any other civic and community activities?

Yes. Another cause that has taken a great deal of my time, and of which I am very proud, is Healthy Babies, Inc. For many years, the District of Columbia has had one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country. This organization addresses issues of substance abuse during pregnancy in a very direct way. Its mission is to provide counseling and access to pre-natal care to women for whom such services were not available in the past. We know that the health of the mother during pregnancy is the most important indicator of the baby's health, and that, as a general proposition, a baby who weighs more than four pounds at birth is going to have fewer health problems than one who weighs less than four pounds. During my tenure as Chairman of the organization's governing board - some eleven years - we were involved in more than 2,500 live births. These were children who, but for that counseling and support, might well have been "crack" babies at birth or afflicted with very serious medical conditions. Being a part of this crucial intervention is something that has given me great satisfaction.

A third civic project in which I am involved is the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. I am from Mississippi originally, and the defense of the civil rights of everyone is something very close to my heart. I serve as Co-Chair of the Committee. The Lawyers' Committee has a long history of advancing the civil rights agenda in this country and in Washington, DC, in particular. Among the clients it has served are the black Secret Service agents who were denied service at a restaurant and the black women to whom a major rental car agency refused to rent cars to in South Carolina. The Lawyers' Committee also has worked to insure that the public schools of the District of Columbia are physically maintained and that rights of the disabled are protected.

Editor: Please tell us what it is that has drawn you to these activities.

I am very fortunate to have a fine practice at what is generally regarded as the premier environmental litigation law firm in the country. I live in one of the most dynamic cities in the world. I have always felt blessed by these circumstances and, as a consequence, feel compelled to give something back.

Editor: How do you manage to do all these things and stay on top of your professional obligations?

I enjoy tremendous support and encouragement from my family as well as at the firm. Specifically, I have the good fortune of working with excellent attorneys and staff who are committed to working together to achieve the goals of our clients. The firm recognizes that when we are engaged in civic activities, we are not only providing a public service and assisting the community, we are raising the firm's profile and enhancing its reputation as a contributing member of that community. The culture of Beveridge & Diamond is one that acknowledges an obligation to make that contribution. I am only one of many attorneys in the firm who make an ongoing commitment to the Washington community.

Editor: What about the future? I assume that service is a given, but what do you see yourself doing over the next few years?

I hope to continue to build my personal practice and to assist in the growth and development of the firm. I also wish to continue introducing younger lawyers to the civic and pro bono activities that have been such an important part of my career. There is always a need for willing hands in this area, and the personal rewards that come from making a difference in someone's life are infinitely greater than the effort itself.