Graft Ravages Washington’s City Government After Boom

Washington D.C. Mayor Vince Gray
Vince Gray, mayor of Washington D.C. Photographer: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post

Character. Integrity. Leadership. That’s what Vince Gray promised when he ran for mayor of Washington in 2010 and defeated incumbent Adrian Fenty.

Since then, two Gray aides have admitted concealing payments to a minor candidate so he would attack Fenty, and the investigation continues. The City Council chairman, a former ally, admitted lying to get a loan for a $50,000 boat he named “Bullet Proof.” Another councilman admitted stealing more than $350,000 meant for children so he could buy an SUV, a motorcycle and leather chaps.

The city in the U.S. Capitol’s shadow has long been ravaged by poverty and corruption. Over the past decade, though, it grew for the first time in a half-century and median household income rose nearly 46 percent. A ballpark was built for Major League Baseball’s Nationals and the once-shabby Chinatown neighborhood took on a new glitz with restaurants and bars. The investigations threaten to overshadow that progress.

“This is a throwback, a reminder of the bad old days of D.C.,” said Terry Lynch, an activist for almost 30 years who runs the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, a nonprofit group providing services to the poor. “The padding of the nest and winning at all cost, that’s not what public service is about. It’s hurting this city badly and has set us back years.”

Grainy Images

Washington, a federal district that is not part of any state, was governed by Congress until lawmakers granted it home rule in 1973. The next year, voters chose their city representatives for the first time.

Marion Barry, the second elected mayor, held office for two decades, minus a four-year break after being convicted for smoking cocaine in a hotel room a few blocks from the White House in 1990. The surveillance-camera image of Barry, who now sits on the City Council, sucking on a crack pipe came to define Washington’s dysfunctional municipal politics -- a picture many residents hoped was fading.

“We can’t confuse dealing with a couple of dishonest politicians with how Washington is doing as a city,” said Peter Rosenstein, 65, director of the American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists and a resident of the Dupont Circle neighborhood.

Still, in January, Harry Thomas Jr., 51, became the first sitting member of the D.C. Council to plead guilty to a felony, the U.S. Attorney’s office said. Thomas admitted misusing city money he directed to a nonprofit that was supposedly teaching children to play baseball and other sports. He resigned and was sentenced to 38 months in prison.

Liar’s Loan

Then, on June 8, Council Chairman Kwame Brown, 41, who had been sworn into office in January 2011 by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, also pleaded guilty to a felony: bank fraud.

In a federal courtroom, Brown -- known for speaking in the third person -- mumbled into a microphone that he lied on documents for two loans totaling more than $220,000. On the loan for a 38-foot boat, Brown added $50,000 to his salary by changing the “3” in $35,000 to an “8,” court documents said.

On the courthouse steps, he read a prepared statement.

“I have worked every day on behalf of the people and have done it wholeheartedly,” Brown said in front of a bank of cameras and microphones. “But six years ago, I made some very serious mistakes and judgments, and I have taken full and sole responsibility.”

His plea deal calls for six months in prison and a $5,000 fine, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

‘Drugs and Women’

“This is the first time that elected officials in D.C. have violated the law for personal gain,” said Bill Lightfoot, a former City Council member who was chairman of Fenty’s 2010 re-election bid. “Barry violated the law, but his was weakness of the spirit. He did drugs and women. We’re the nation’s capital and should set a standard to be followed by the nation.”

The scandals chagrined a city reveling in success. Its population increased to 601,723 in 2010 from 572,059 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The 5.2 percent increase was the first since the 1950 census. Median household income grew to $58,526 in 2010 from $40,127 in 2000. The district was third during that period on the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States, a measure of the fiscal health of the 50 U.S. states and Washington.

As the city battened, neighborhoods were reclaimed from blight, sometimes displacing longtime residents, though adding vibrancy. Neighborhoods including Logan Circle and Shaw boomed. And this year -- after generations of hapless Washington baseball teams -- the Nationals lead their division.

Holes and Trash

“The city is still moving forward,” said Tommy Wells, a councilman. “There’s a long history in America, or any democracy, in times when public officials do bad things.”

The district knows those times.

In 1985, Barry’s chief political adviser pleaded guilty to stealing $190,000 from the city. Two years later, his deputy mayor for finance admitted to directing more than $260,000 in auditing contracts to a friend’s firm.

When Barry’s government projected a $722 million deficit for its $3.2 billion budget in 1995, Congress and President Bill Clinton put Washington under a control board as potholes went unfilled and trash uncollected.

Brown and Thomas grew up in families that enjoyed political connections. They were viewed as the future of black leadership in a place long known as “Chocolate City.”

Dog Parks

However, blacks are now in the minority in D.C. for the first time in more than 50 years, falling to 304,203, or 49.2 percent of the population, according to U.S. Census 2011 population estimates.

The city’s changing demographics defined the mayoral race.

Gray won with the support of 108-majority-black census tracts and only five majority white, according a Washington Post analysis. Fenty, who four years earlier took every precinct, won 53 majority-white tracts and 10 black.

In his term, he had pushed for dog parks and bike lanes. Some residents said Fenty’s amenities were welcome mats for white newcomers, and that the investigations are revenge for his ouster.

“Why are people of color getting investigated?” said Garry Steven, 49, who cuts hair at Joseph’s Barber Shop on Georgia Avenue. “They want to control the city and get real Washingtonians out, and they’re starting from the top and working their way down.”

He described white newcomers as “the KKK in suits.”

Regular Folks

Lee Granados, a 37-year-old born, raised and still living in wealthier Dupont Circle, said those people saw opportunities to live closer to their jobs and send their children to schools they believed were improving.

“The corruption just leaves residents with the perception of a city that’s up in the air, and they wonder why they should get involved,” said Granados, a white woman managing the campaign of an aspiring school-board member. “People are at the tipping point of being so disenfranchised that if things don’t change quickly, they’ll give up and leave.”

It’s that discouragement that U.S. Attorney Ron Machen said he’s trying to fight by prosecuting the politicians.

“Corruption creates cynicism, disengagement,” Machen said at a June 8 press conference. “It creates and leads to a culture of apathy, a culture of complacency and a culture of acceptance.”

Machen said the investigation into Gray’s campaign is continuing. Pedro Ribeiro, a Gray spokesman, didn’t return calls for comment.

“The whole government is going to fall if we have any more councilmembers gone or the mayor,” said D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh. “I mean really: eek.”

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