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District of Columbia scandals cast shadow on autonomy

With two council members resigning after pleading guilty to felonies, and a 2010 election investigation threatening to engulf Mayor Vincent Gray, questions are renewed about the capital's self-governance.

July 06, 2012|By Ian Duncan, Los Angeles Times
  • Kwame Brown, chairman of the Washington, D.C., City Council, resigned after facing fraud charges.
Kwame Brown, chairman of the Washington, D.C., City Council, resigned… (Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated…)

WASHINGTON — A parade of District of Columbia politicians and operatives keeps passing through the doors of the federal courthouse, pleading guilty to felonies.

They leave behind the corpses of their careers, and the local leadership of the nation's capital in disarray.

In early June, Kwame Brown, chairman of the D.C. Council, pleaded guilty to fraudulently obtaining a $55,000 boat loan and to a misdemeanor campaign finance charge. He became the second councilman to resign after facing felony charges: In January, Councilman Harry Thomas pleaded guilty to stealing $350,000 intended for youth programs.

Brown's resignation came just weeks after the departure of two staffers who had worked on Mayor Vincent Gray's 2010 campaign, stemming from a federal investigation into an allegation that a minor candidate had been supplied with illegal cash to attack Gray's major opponent, Adrian Fenty. And federal prosecutors are also looking into a series of possibly illegal campaign donations to Gray and other council members.

The real question now is whether the investigation will engulf the mayor, inevitably resurrecting the specter of Marion Barry, the former mayor who went to jail on drug charges. And old questions now have new life about whether the city that would be a state is capable of self-governance.

A Republican congressional aide, who has been following the scandals closely, said they had made it hard to sell autonomy to already skeptical Congress members.

"There was a sense earlier this year that there was real momentum behind [autonomy], and these law enforcement actions took away a lot of the momentum," he said. The aide asked for anonymity in order to discuss party strategy.

As if to emphasize how bad things have gotten, Barry, now a City Council member, said the crisis was the worst since Congress devolved power to the city in 1973.

"I can't think of anything except9/11that's been more horrific," he said in a subsequent statement.

Tom Sherwood, a veteran reporter who wrote "Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C.," said that "with all due respect," he disagreed with the former mayor.

In 1990, Barry was videotaped smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room, and five years later he brought Washington to the brink of bankruptcy, leading to a partial federal takeover of Washington's budget.

But Sherwood acknowledged, "The bad news is we do not know if our mayor is a criminal."

Last year, Sulaimon Brown, the candidate who allegedly received payoffs from the Gray campaign, testified to a council committee that Gray personally promised him a job on the city payroll if he continued to take shots at Fenty. After the election, Brown was hired to a $110,000-a-year post in a city office.

Gray has said he told Brown he would arrange a job interview, but denies any knowledge of payments to Brown's campaign.

"We recognize the need to regain the public's trust in the present climate," said Doxie McCoy, a spokeswoman for the mayor, "and of course we have been taking allegations seriously while continuing to do the work of the government and making progress on many fronts related to the mayor's priorities."

Gray last week sent Washington Atty. Gen. Irvin Nathan to a council committee to outline campaign finance law reforms.

Meanwhile, some Republicans in Congress are pushing to use Washington as a laboratory to try out favored policies — such as looser gun laws and limits on abortion. A Senate bill to give the District of Columbia more control over its budget was withdrawn last week after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced a series of amendments advancing those policies.

Despite the scandals and high-level political fights, the city's boosters are keen to point out that the economy is growing and crime is down.

Anwar Saleem, a salon owner, landlord and community leader in one still edgy but definitely booming neighborhood, was blunt.

If Washington is doing this well with scandals, he said, "maybe some other states should have some scandals."

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