Does a candidate have a duty to publicize his 20-year-old marijuana arrest?

Four at-large D.C. Council candidates gathered on NewsChannel 8 Thursday morning for a debate hosted by NewsTalk’s Bruce DePuyt. The liveliest portion ensued after independent hopeful David Grosso started taking shots at independent incumbent Michael A. Brown for his series of management and financial lapses, arguing that Brown has “shown that he’s really not fit to be in office for a lot of reasons.”

Brown’s response: You’re not so squeaky clean yourself, buster. He cited Grosso’s 1993 marijuana arrest and questioned why the candidate was not more up-front with his minor criminal record. “If you’re going to talk about my personal issues, talk about yours,” Brown said. “Talk about your arrest and conviction. Talk about it. … Why didn’t you tell the voters about it up front?”

Now reasonable people can determine for themselves how Grosso’s weed charge, to which he pleaded no contest at age 22, weighs against Brown’s record of personal and professional foibles — which includes pleading guilty to a campaign finance misdemeanor (1997), being part of a group held liable for $635,000 in unpaid luxury box fees (2004), failing to pay income taxes on time (2004-2009), failing to pay property taxes on time (2009-2010), leaving a trail of unpaid bills and unhappy employees after his last council campaign (2008), having his driver’s license repeatedly suspended (2005-2007, 2009-2010), missing rent payments (2011-2012) and having the bulk of his campaign account go missing (2012).

Grosso and Brown go at it. (NewsChannel 8)

But Brown’s strategy to deflect criticism at this point is to suggest Grosso is untrustworthy because he was somehow less than forthcoming about the weed charge. He was wholly forthcoming when I asked him about it earlier this month, but Brown suggested Grosso himself should have come clean about his shortcomings well before that.

It’s fair to suggest us media types should have done a swifter and more assiduous job vetting the criminal records of Brown’s opponents. (Brown suggested as much Thursday: “It seems to me if I sneeze without a tissue I get on the front page of the paper.”) But did Grosso himself have a duty to alert the public to his own shortcomings absent pressure from his opponent or the media?

Brown spokesman Asher Corson said he does. “It wasn’t disclosed to voters in any format,” he said. “A tweet, a Web site posting, acknowledging it to the media. There could have been any number of ways to to disclose it. … Especially when you are attacking somebody for ethics on a regular basis, and you have a major ethical lapse in your own life, I think it’s definitely worth pointing that out.”

Grosso, in a previous interview as well as during the debate, has said he’s come clean about the arrest to everyone who has ever asked about it — including college and law school admissions officers and the D.C. Bar. City Paper columnist Alan Suderman tweeted Thursday morning that Grosso had been candid with him about the arrest in an August interview but he “[f]igured no one cared.”

So, what do you say, folks: To what degree are candidates obligated to air their dirty laundry themselves?

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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Mike DeBonis · October 11, 2012

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