Atlantic Cities

The D.C. Government's All-Star Embarrassments

The D.C. Government's All-Star Embarrassments
Mark Byrnes

David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of HBO's The Wire and Treme, made a surprise call into a Washington, D.C. radio program on Thursday. WAMU's The Kojo Nnamdi Show is required listening for anyone who pays attention to local District of Columbia politics, and Simon, it turns out, was listening in the car while driving his daughter to her grandmother’s house. The topic of Thursday's Kojo was the latest in a string of embarrassing federal corruption cases brought against elected D.C. officials over the last year, in this case, the resignation of D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown in the wake of felony bank fraud charges related to falsified home mortgage documents.

Nnamdi and his guests spent most of the program going through the finer points of the charges against Brown (the former Chairman was subsequently also charged with a misdemeanor violation of the District's campaign finance laws) and attempting to parse what his resignation means for the city's political future. But Simon called in to wag a finger at the prosecutors involved in the case, claiming the specific charges brought against Brown were weak sauce.

"As a longtime police reporter, whenever I see the bank charge leading the way in a federal investigation, what I know almost to a certainty is that if they're leading with that, they came up empty almost everywhere else," Simon said.

In other words, because the meat of the U.S. Attorney's case against Brown was related to personal finances and not public business, all the investigation really amounted to is small potatoes. Wrong, to be sure, but a trifle. 

Simon may or may not have a broader point about the so-called "head shot," the nickname prosecutors use for the practice of digging up home mortgage irregularities in the course of investigating public corruption (and even based only on what we know so far in this case I'd argue he's a bit off, as it appears Brown plans to plead guilty this morning to personally doctoring documents that grossly inflated his income and the value of his home in order to obtain a loan to pay for, among other things, a 38-foot Chris-Craft boat named "Bullet Proof"), but he inadvertently put his finger on the exact right sentiment when it comes to the seemingly endless parade of disgraceful episodes perpetrated by elected officials in the District of Columbia over the last couple of years: Trifling.

The sheer volume of scandals permeating D.C.'s city hall these days is astonishing, and that's saying something for a city that, in the mid-1990s, screwed up its finances so badly that Congress was compelled to step in and take over for a while. But when you step back and look at the big picture, what's really remarkable about all this recent opprobrium is how pathetically trivial the stakes involved appear to have been. D.C. voters assembled an all-star team of embarrassments the last time they visited the polls, and they're all the more embarrassing for the petty, picayune nature of the nonsense in which they've turned out to be mixed up.

Let's meet these All-Stars and see if you agree:

Thomas, the former Ward 5 Council member who resigned in disgrace in January (his father, the late Harry Thomas, Sr., served three terms in the same seat) pleaded guilty to embezzling $350,000 in public money that had been intended to fund youth programs. That's no trifling sum. But Thomas distinguished himself in this citywide pettiness race by spending the money on some truly lame status symbols: an Audi SUV, a motorcycle, and a golf trip to Pebble Beach, among other items. In his sentencing hearing last month, he offered the clearest explanation yet of the mindset that led him down this sad, boring path: "a sense of entitlement." For all that, he'll soon spend 38 months in jail.

The first sign of trouble for Brown came shortly before he was elected chairman, when news broke that he was being sued by several credit card companies for more than $50,000 in unpaid debt, which he promptly fessed up was the result of he and his wife living beyond their means.

After the 2010 election came the episode that earned him the unforgettable nickname of "Fully Loaded." In what quickly came to be known as "Navigatorgate," upon assuming the chairmanship in early 2011, emails showed that Brown had insisted that the city lease him a brand new, black-on-black, "fully loaded" Lincoln SUV at a cost of a whopping $1,900 per month. The scuttlebutt at the time was that Brown, who had previously served as an At-Large council member, wanted a city vehicle that looked exactly like the mayor's. But when the SUV arrived, Brown rejected it, as it had a gray interior, not black. So the city's public works department located an alternate SUV, but taxpayers were still on the hook for breaking the lease on the first one, and once the scandal broke, Brown decided to return the second vehicle, too. Total cost to taxpayers of Navigatorgate? Somewhere around $20,000.

Demanding a fancy car paid for with public funds from a cash-strapped city may be some trifling behavior, but it isn't against the law. The investigation that led to Brown's plea agreement and resignation this week was sparked instead by a harsh audit of his 2008 campaign for his former at-large seat. Among the irregularities uncovered in that document: Brown’s brother, Che, had received more than $240,000 from the campaign via a third-party contractor. The misdemeanor campaign finance charge to which Brown now appears set to plead guilty says that he allowed Che to open a "side account" and use that account to make campaign cash expenditures larger than the legal limit of $50.

The fate of D.C.'s embattled mayor is still to be determined. So far, two of his key campaign aides, Howard Brooks and Thomas Gore, have pleaded guilty for their roles in a bizarre conspiracy to funnel envelopes of cash and at least $2,810 in money orders to a sunglasses-loving fellow named Sulaimon Brown, an also-ran candidate in the 2010 mayoral election. The money given to Brown was apparently intended as payment for lobbing outlandish attacks during low-attendance candidate forums against Gray's rival, former Mayor Adrian Fenty. A final tally of payments made to Brown by members of the Gray campaign is still unknown, but the evidence so far suggests it was indeed a trifling amount. That said, Brown was later hired by the Gray administration in a $110,000-a-year job for which he was not really qualified in the Office of Health Care Finance, admittedly a somewhat less trifling reward. Then again, Brown was fired not long after he was hired. Overall trifling level for this saga: High.

Gray has steadfastly denied any knowledge of the payments or a quid pro quo hiring arrangement, but a broader investigation into the campaign's finances, which now includes $59,000 in suspicious money orders connected to top political donation bundler Jeffrey Thompson, is ongoing.

A thorough history of embarrassments associated with D.C.'s "Mayor-for-Life," from "Bitch set me up" all the way to last month's racially insensitive remarks about Asians and Fillipinos, would need its own blog post (if not a book). But the former mayor and current Ward 8 Council member's most trifling moment in recent years was his 2010 censure for awarding his then-girlfriend a $15,000 city contract to prepare a report for his office, from which he subsequently received "several thousand dollars" back from her. Barry later denied any wrongdoing and insisted the money was repayment for a loan and not a kickback, but the episode still cost him his committee chairmanship (not to mention the girlfriend). Triflin'!

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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