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Democracy in America

The Dumbest Local Politics Scandals of 2011

The Dumbest Local Politics Scandals of 2011
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The past year has seen its fair share of ridiculous political scandals at the national level, from the Internet-based sex habits of former congressmen Anthony Weiner and Chris Lee to the overwhelming train wreck that was Herman Cain's unlikely bid for the Republican presidential nomination. But when you really want fantastically stupid examples of politicians behaving badly (and let's face it, we do!), nothing compares to the dimwitted antics of this year's nominees for Outstanding Achievement in Dumb Local Politics Scandals. Without further ado, 2011's pointiest pinheads:

  • Warren Turner, Former Charlotte, N.C., City Council Member: Former Charlotte city council member Warren Turner lost his career in politics the old fashioned way earlier this year: voters there opted not to give the eight-year veteran another term, choosing his opponent, community organizer LaWana Mayfield, instead. Turner was already in trouble thanks to allegations of sexual harassment from at least five female members of his staff, which is pretty stupid all on its own. But what appears to have finally put the last nail in his professional coffin was a bizarre incident from 2009 which only became public later, during the height of his re-election campaign. Turner had allegedly carried his state-issued gun to a Charlotte construction site, pretended to be a code enforcement officer, and proceeded to "flash" his gun at some of the laborers who were working there, telling them to stop their work. What he was allegedly hoping to accomplish with that pistol act remains unclear; more certain are Turner's political prospects—kaput.

  • Troy, Mich., Mayor Janice Daniels: We already knew that Troy's Tea Party Mayor, Janice Daniels, is refusing to accept $8.5 million in federal grant money for a multi-modal transit hub for her town because, as she's been quoted, "The City of Troy cannot afford this $8.5 million of free money." But Daniels got her young administration off to rocky start late this year when an anti-gay post she had written on her own Facebook wall over the summer finally went viral: "I think I am going to throw away my I Love New York carrying bag now that queers can get married there," read the missive. Daniels has since apologized for her use of the word "queer," but not everyone in Troy is buying her sincerity. A petition to demand her resignation has been making the rounds. Daniels says she'll do no such thing.

  • The District of Columbia Council and Mayor's Office, Collectively: Not all of the scandals that have come out of the local government in Washington, D.C., over the course of 2011 are quite stupid enough to be included in this list. A few are just run-of-the-mill campaign finance or constituent service funds accounts investigations; highly questionable, to be sure, but not unusual enough to merit this year's top honors. Others, like the blockbuster saga of how also-ran mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown may or may not have been given envelopes of cash and promised a job in newly elected Mayor Vincent Gray's administration (a job he actually got before he was quickly fired) in exchange for voicing outlandish campaign attacks against Gray's rival, former Mayor Adrian Fenty, could very well stand on their own: an investigative hearing featuring Brown wearing sunglasses while he testified was a classic of the genre. But the current cast of characters populating the D.C. government deserve a collective award this year, thanks to the sheer volume of scandals its top members have been embroiled in. This year's been so bad for the District government that its council's longest-serving member, Jack Evans, actually publicly called it the worst council he's ever served on. While the most memorable scandal of the year was surely what came to be known as "Navigatorgate," an imbroglio involving the apparently massive ego of D.C. Council Chair Kwame Brown and his costly insistence that he be given a brand new, black-on-black, "fully loaded" Lincoln SUV to drive around in, the most serious is the one involving Ward 5 Council member Harry "Tommy" Thomas, Jr. Thomas has been under investigation for months over accusations he embezzled more than $300,000 in public funds that had intended for youth sports programs, money he's accused of having spent on a luxury car and trips to golf resorts. He's already reached a deal with the city to repay the money without admitting guilt, but that didn't stop federal agents from raiding his home earlier this month in search of evidence for a possibly much larger criminal case.

  • West Valley, Utah, Mayor Mike Winder: As our own Nate Berg shared with us earlier this fall, Winder, the mayor of a small town in the Salt Lake City metro area, is by all accounts passionate about promoting the good things going on in his city. A little too passionate, as it turns out. In November, Winder was forced to admit that he'd been writing freelance articles about how great West Valley is for the Deseret News and a number of other news outlets ... using a fake name. The "journalist" formerly known as "Richard Burwash" has kept his mayoral post since the scandal broke, but first he had to suffer the indignity of a 7-0 vote by the city council to publicly scold him for the ethical lapse. To Winder's credit, he's publicly apologized for his deception, but it may not be over just yet: a former Utah executive is now claiming he was defamed in an article written written by "Burwash," and plans to sue.

  • San Fernando, Calif., Mayor Mario Hernandez: The mayor of this working-class town of 25,000 has had a rough year, dealing with a major budget deficit and a police chief who was accused of carrying on an affair with a young cadet and then firing her when she called it off. On top of those governmental woes, the mayor's personal finances are a shambles: his business went belly up, forcing him to file for bankruptcy. Presumably the stress of it all finally got to Hernandez, who stunned his colleagues earlier this fall when he announced, in the middle of a City Council meeting, that he's been having an affair with Councilwoman Maribel de la Torre. And that's not even the worst part: Hernandez's wife was sitting in the audience at the time, and when she stood up to refute his assertion that he'd been separated from her at the time, he ordered city police officers to forcibly remove her for "interrupting," and then promptly adjourned the meeting. San Fernando residents have since been calling for the mayor's resignation.

  • Former City Council of Bell, Calif.: While the arrests of eight city officials, including former City Manager Robert Rizzo, former Mayor Oscar Hernandez, and most of the Bell City Council on corruption and fraud charges went down in 2010, the scandal, which was first brought to light by two investigative journalists at the Los Angeles Times, has only become more outrageous over the course of 2011. You're likely to have heard the beginning of the story already: A large group of Bell officials stand accused of paying themselves obscenely high salaries (some as high as almost $800,000 per year), much of that for work they may have not even actually been doing. Since then there was an unprecedented March special election that saw voters recall their entire city government, bolstered even further by this odd turn: three former members of the council actually had the audacity to demand that the city they left bankrupt pay for their legal expenses. While a trial date has yet to be set, two judges in a row now have more or less told the defendants where they can shove their demands.

  • Jack B. Johnson and Leslie Johnson, Prince George's County, Md., Former Supervisor and Former County Council Member, Respectively: When the FBI last November raided the home that former Prince George's County Supervisor Jack B. Johnson shared with his wife, Leslie Johnson, then a newly elected county council member herself, the local press corps in the Washington, D.C., metro area knew it was going to be a big corruption story. But nothing could have prepared them for the details released in the lengthy affidavit of criminal complaints against the pair, which included a recorded phone conversation in which Jack Johnson ordered his wife to hide more $75,000 worth of cash bribes in her bra and panties. The duo tried to hang on to their jobs for a short time, but eventually both pleaded guilty to charges ranging from accepting bribes to tampering with evidence. Jack has been sentenced to a 7-year prison sentence; Leslie, a 1-year stint.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com / Szasz-Fabian Ilka Erika

Keywords: Scandals

Sommer Mathis is editor of The Atlantic Cities. Previously she spent five years editing and reporting on the D.C. metro area at DCist.com and TBD.com. All posts »

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