The city’s in serious trouble,” D.C. Council member Marion Barry said last week at yet another raucous Washington hearing. “We are the laughingstock of the nation.”
He should know. In 1990, Barry was videotaped smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room in an FBI sting that a female acquaintance had helped to arrange, prompting his immortal observation about how the woman — he used a different five-letter word — had “set me up.” The tape was pre-YouTube but went viral, making a joke of the nation’s capital and helping to secure the mayor’s reputation for garbled pronouncements. “Except for the killings,” he once said about the city’s murder rate, then the nation’s highest, “Washington has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.”
Those were the days. Now the city’s government is the focus of a federal corruption investigation, which has just snared two council members, as well as numerous smaller fry, and is nipping at the new mayor, Vincent Gray. It has gotten to the point where one city council member held a going-off-to-prison party for himself last week.
The Founders set up the nation’s capital as something like the Vatican, with its own flag and officials — but without great art or wealth. Washington had hoped President Obama’s election would lead to more authority than home rule had granted to the elected mayor and 13-member council in 1973. These latest scandals have effectively ruined any chance of that.
The occasion that prompted Barry’s comment was the guilty plea last week of Council Chairman Kwame Brown to felony bank-fraud charges for falsifying his income on loan applications for a yacht. This is the same Brown who shortly after his 2010 election requested the city provide him with a 2011 Lincoln Navigator that cost $1,963 a month to lease. (He sent the first one back because it had a gray leather interior, not black as he had requested.) An audit last year discovered that Brown had more than $270,000 in unreported campaign contributions, and a $239,000 payment to a consulting firm operated by his brother.
At least Brown wasn’t stealing money from disadvantaged children, as Harry Thomas was. Thomas, another council member, admitted in January to taking public funds — $353,500 — meant for at-risk children to enroll in sports programs. Thomas held a “going away” party last week before reporting to federal prison in Alabama to serve a 38-month sentence.
Left without a leader as Kwame Brown awaits sentencing, the council nominated another Brown, Michael, to replace him. (Michael is not related to Kwame but is the son of Ron Brown, the former Commerce secretary killed in 1996 in a plane crash.) It turns out, however, that Michael Brown is not without problems, including a failure to pay taxes and violations of campaign-finance laws.
It’s hard to find a blameless official in Washington. This brings us to yet another Brown, Sulaimon, and the parallel federal investigation of Mayor Vincent Gray. Gray, who was elected in 2010, is suspected of paying Sulaimon Brown, then a minor mayoral candidate, to stay in the race so that he (Gray) could take the high road and Brown the low one against then incumbent Adrian Fenty. For Brown, the low road included accusing Fenty of not respecting his parents and sitting in a chair meant for Fenty until removed at a debate.