Washington’s Other Dysfunctional Government

(Corrects details of audit of Kwame Brown’s campaign in fifth paragraph.)

June 20 (Bloomberg) -- “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 national 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 the election of President Barack Obama 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.

Wrong Leather

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 paid $239,000 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.

As a candidate Sulaimon Brown came across as unqualified for nearly any job except hurling accusations at Fenty. Yet he ended up in a $110,000-a-year position in Gray’s administration, which Brown said the mayor-to-be promised him in exchange for his help.

Job Interview

Gray admits that he promised Brown a job interview, but not a job. The Washington Post published text messages from Gray to Brown that have the mayor saying, “We did not renege on any commitments to you. You know and we know what agreements had been reached. And none has been breached.” After details of this story became public, Brown was eventually fired from his job.

So far two aides of Gray, including his close friend and assistant campaign treasurer Thomas Gore, have pleaded guilty in the investigation. Gore admitted in federal court in May that he gave unreported cash contributions to Brown for his help and lied about it. As U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen said: “In 2010, the voters of the District of Columbia were deceived. Envelopes stuffed with fraudulent money orders prevented the public from knowing that one mayoral campaign was secretly financing the campaign of an opposing candidate.”

If Barry’s experience is any guide, Gray needn’t worry too much about a federal investigation. Corruption, drug possession and use, unreported campaign contributions -- none of it necessarily ends a career in Washington. Through his arrest, trial and sentencing, Barry hung on as mayor until he left in 1991 for federal prison. He returned to win a seat on the city council in 1992 and ultimately returned to the mayor’s office in 1995, earning him the title Mayor for Life.

Washington’s tolerance for official crime doesn’t help its efforts to gain greater budget autonomy, win more voting power for the district’s delegate, or come closer to statehood. It does, however, help contribute to the city’s reputation as a laughingstock. Between the local and federal governments, it is a reputation that seems secure.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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