D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown may have convinced council colleagues this week that his past legal and financial troubles are old news.
But will District voters be so easily convinced?
In the hours leading up to Wednesday’s council vote that installed Brown as president-pro tempore of the body, Brown (I-At Large) brushed aside questions about ethics by repeatedly stating that he has already been vetted by voters.
“All the things you mentioned … are old news,” Brown told reporters before Wednesday’s council vote. “There is nothing new. Voters have vetted me on all those issues.”
Yet Brown appears to be missing some key dates in the evolution of public awareness over the extent of his financial troubles, which could complicate his reelection campaign this year.
During his 2006 campaign for mayor, Brown’s 1997 conviction for a federal misdemeanor campaign finance violation and some of his other legal problems, such as two lawsuits he was facing at the time, were well aired by the media.
But when Brown ran for his at-large seat in 2008, there was relatively little public debate about some of his past legal issues because much of the focus was on the ugly intraparty battle between Republican nominee Patrick Mara and write-in candidate Carol Schwartz, who Mara defeated in the GOP primary.
Many observers did not expect Brown to win that race until just weeks before the election.
“I don’t remember very much coming out about Michael because I was being attacked by the candidate running the write-in campaign against me the entire time,” Mara recalls. “That was the focus of that campaign, not Michael Brown.”
In the three and half years since Browns’ election, however, the extent of his financial troubles has become more public. In January 2011, The Washington Post reported that Brown and his wife failed to pay property taxes on their Chevy Chase home. The same article noted that Internal Revenue Service filed a $50,000 lien against Brown the preceding April for failure to pay income taxes dating to 2004.
According to a copy of the lien, Brown failed to pay $7,128 in 2004, $28,625 in 2005, $5,176 in 2007 and $11,951 in 2008.
Brown is on a repayment plan, but his tax issue resurfaced Friday after the Washington Times noted that a fresh lien was filed against him in April. According to the Times, the latest lien, for $20,000, cites income tax obligations through 2010.
In an interview with the newspaper, Brown took the same approach he used earlier in the week with reporters and his council colleagues.
“It’s not new news,” Brown is quoted as saying. He is later quoted saying, “The voters vetted me on the issues and they were satisfied.”
Since his election, however, Brown has also had trouble paying his rent on time. In April, The Washington Post reported that Brown missed rent payments on two apartments that have been under his name at the Rittenhouse Apartments on 16th Street NW over the past two years.
Brown makes $125,000 a year as a council member and an additional $240,000 working in the private sector.
And though he has not been accused of wrongdoing, voters also haven’t had an opportunity to fully vet Brown’s push to legalize Internet gambling. In 2010, Brown authored a budget amendment to legalize Internet gambling in the District. But the council repealed the law this year after questions were raised about how it was approved and being implemented
Lawyer David Grosso, who is challenging Brown in November, said it’s “bizarre” that Brown arguing that his record is well-known to most voters.
“He has a lot of problems,” Grosso said. “It bothers me that he says this stuff is all behind him, but yet, again, he didn’t pay his rent this year.”
Calls to Brown went to voicemail Friday and a message said that his inbox was full.
Still, Brown remains favored to retain his seat, one of two reserved for a member of a non-majority party. On Friday, Leon Swain, former head of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, entered the race.
But Brown remains popular with African Americans, who could turn out in big numbers to support President Obama.
In one of his final official acts, Kwame Brown named Michael Brown chairman of the Economic Development Committee, which should make it easier for the council member to raise money. Four years ago, when he was seeking reelection as an at-large member, Kwame Brown used that perch to raise more than $800,000 for his effort.
Perhaps most importantly for Michael Brown’s chances, he does not appear to have a well-funded challenger willing to make a big issue out his financial troubles, at least so far.
“We are not going to jump out there and give anyone a hard time at all,” Grosso said. “It’s just not our style. If people want to see it, they just need to read up on (Brown). It’s not our place to be negative.”