Ronald C. Machen Jr. and Vincent H. Cohen Jr. never intended to tear down the District’s black political infrastructure.
It just happened that way.
When the longtime friends left lucrative jobs as defense attorneys to take over the U.S. Attorney’s Office four years ago, public corruption was third on a list of priorities.
But public corruption quickly rose to the top. They’re good at fighting it.
In head-turning succession, they picked off three D.C. Council members and embarked on a wide-ranging case that has uncovered the covert deals and money that helped Mayor Vincent C. Gray get elected in 2010.
Machen, the U.S. attorney for the District, and Cohen, his assistant, also tackled Jeffrey E. Thompson, one of the city’s most prominent black businessmen. Less than two years ago, Thompson was the city’s leading fundraiser, a generous philanthropist, the holder of the single-largest city contract at $322 million annually and the majority owner of one of the largest black-owned accounting firms nationwide. He’s now an unidentified, unindicted co-conspirator in court documents.
Machen and Cohen make no apologies. They repeat their mantra: “We prosecute conduct, not color.”
Yet the Batman and Robin of the U.S. Attorney’s Office cannot ignore that their takedowns have some in the city wondering if they’ve gone after black officials too hard — and paid less attention to other wrongdoers. Others worry that their approach is crippling the black establishment at a time when the city’s once-dominant black population is shrinking.
Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), a loyal supporter of Gray, said racial disparity in guilty pleas has been stark and creates a perception that “all African Americans are surrounded by corruption.”
“It’s a whisper. It’s an undercurrent,” she said. “It looks bad. ... People may look at us and group us.”
Publicly Machen and Cohen reject any notion that their actions have been anything other than fair. But friends and colleagues say both men are troubled by the perception. Even as the pair push for more indictments and seek to put away more corrupt politicians, they face questions about whether they’ve gone out of their way to target their own.
The crackdown by Machen and Cohen was, at first, welcomed by the denizens of D.C. government and politics. Two top law enforcement officers finally cared enough about the District to dredge the John A. Wilson Building of its graft with an intensity not seen since the U.S. Attorney’s Office set its sights on then-Mayor Marion Barry in the late 1980s.
But the initial enthusiasm was soon replaced by unease that seeped into the daily gossip of who’s next. One investigation after the other, plea by plea, the tension built.
In March 2011, the U.S. Attorney’s Office launched an investigation into Gray’s 2010 campaign, spurred by a Washington Post article that said minor mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown was paid and promised a job to disparage then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty on behalf of the Gray campaign. Fenty lost the primary and his chance at a second term.
In January 2012, Thomas — the scion of a mini-political dynasty in working-class Ward 5 — pleaded guilty to funneling more than $350,000 in public funds to make personal purchases, including an Audi Q7 SUV and a Victory motorcycle. The money was supposed to go to youth programs.
Six months later, Kwame Brown — whose rise to council chairman far exceeded the dreams of his father, a dogged local political operative — pleaded guilty to lying on bank applications to get $200,000 in loans. He spent some of it to buy a boat called “Bullet Proof.”
In June 2013, former council member Michael Brown, the son of the late, highly regarded Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown, pleaded guilty to bribery, taking $55,000 from a fake business looking to get city contracts and certification. He was snagged in a sting operation that began just as Kwame Brown, no relation, was resigning from office and pleading guilty.
Meanwhile, no white council members or key political figures have fallen during the corruption clampdown. One, council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), was seen by numerous black politicos as a worthy target.
Graham was first elected in 1998, defeating a longtime African American council member who was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The election was a sort of precursor to the way the city’s demographics and elected officials would transform.
Last year, the D.C. Council formally reprimanded Graham and stripped him of some of his council duties after two investigations by a law firm hired by the Metro board and the city’s new Board of Ethics and Accountability found he offered support to a businessman if that man withdrew from a development project.
Separately, Graham’s chief of staff served eight months in prison for receiving gratuities in a scheme involving the taxicab industry after he was sentenced in 2011.
Troy W. Poole, a defense attorney, said he thought that Keely Thompson, his client and a former pro boxer, had evidence of wrongdoing against a council member who he had identified as Graham that was not vigorously pursued. Thompson was sentenced to 21 / 2 years in prison for taking more than $200,000 in grant money. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, led by Machen and Cohen, said it could not corroborate Thompson’s accusations and said that he was an unreliable source.
Graham has denied any wrongdoing in both matters. He announced last month that he is running for reelection, and says he believes Machen and Cohen are doing a good job.
Meanwhile, the longstanding investigations of Gray and Jeffrey Thompson continue apace, unsettling some who wish they would wrap up and allow the city to move forward.
“I do wonder if there was a way to come to a resolution before now,” said Pauline Schneider, a prominent securities lawyer who is chairman of the federal committee that selected Machen as one of three nominees for his post in 2009. “It’s kind of a difficult place for the mayor, but it’s also a difficult place for this city. ... It’s so damaging for the city. We can’t get on with our life, in a sense.”
Although many political leaders and observers in the District believe that Machen and Cohen are colorblind when it comes to pursuing cases, the racial makeup of the indicted is conspicuous to a circle of black D.C. residents who have built their lives around a city government that helped them get jobs and contracts beginning in the 1970s when the federal government was not as welcoming. Some wonder privately whether Machen and Cohen are simply trying to make bigger names for themselves. Or whether the two have ambitions for the city’s top political office themselves. Both men dismiss both suggestions.
In interviews, separately and together, Machen and Cohen are incredulous that the issue of race is being raised about who they’ve gone after. They point out they have also prosecuted federal officials, including Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.), who are white. And they emphasize that blacks were often the victims of the corruption crimes they prosecuted. Machen and Cohen say they have been exemplars of professionalism throughout their careers.
Machen and Cohen’s involvement with the city’s black ruling class is complicated. Both men have friends and fraternity brothers who intermingle within that bubble. Cohen is a former general counsel of the 100 Black Men of Greater Washington; Machen is on the same holiday party guest list as Thompson, the mayor and former mayors. The guilty pleas of Thomas and Michael Brown marked the fall of two Omega Psi Phi brothers.
“Part of the challenge for both of them is that it involves their home turf, people they know or people who know people they know,” said attorney Frederick D. Cooke Jr., who has represented several targets and who considered Cohen’s father a mentor. “I don’t think either one of them is built to walk away from that challenge.”
Cohen, 43, and Machen, 44, led parallel lives before they met in 1997 as assistant U.S. attorneys in the D.C. office.
Each man carries the name of his father and was raised by married, college-educated parents in solidly middle-class neighborhoods.
Cohen grew up in the District’s North Portal Estates, a Northwest community nestled near Rock Creek Park; Machen grew up in Southfield, a Detroit suburb.
Machen attended Cranbrook, the private college prep boarding school in Michigan that boasts former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney as an alumnus. Cohen attended Sidwell Friends, the private school that counts Chelsea Clinton as a graduate and Malia and Sasha Obama as current students.
Both high school athletes, Cohen and Machen had to prove themselves on the college level. Machen walked on to the Stanford University football team; Cohen walked on to the Syracuse University basketball team.
In college, they both pledged Omega Psi Phi fraternity, a predominantly African American fraternity. They went to law school: Cohen at Syracuse and Machen at Harvard.
But despite their mostly idyllic journeys to manhood, they both encountered racism along the way.
Race became a factor at Sidwell, Cohen said. Shepherd Elementary, where he attended through fourth grade, was predominantly black. At Sidwell, “it was my first time being a minority. It was not all that easy a transition because of that,” Cohen said. “Some of the folks weren’t that familiar with African Americans. ... There were some things said that weren’t so kind.”
Cohen became president of the Black Student Union and organized go-go parties at the school that featured legendary acts, such as Rare Essence, drawing students of all races from the region. “I thought I could be the voice of African Americans at Sidwell if they were having problems,” Cohen said.
Machen said he dealt with racial profiling while driving from Southfield to Bloomfield Hills to get to Cranbrook. “I had an old Buick, a ’72 Buick. My dad got it for me,” he said, fondly remembering the blue car of his youth.
He recalled his frustration at repeatedly being pulled over. He often found himself saying to police: “You stopped me yesterday. I go to school here.
“I wasn’t a big fan of police,” he said. “At least not those police.”
Cohen was 10 when he thought he might be a lawyer like his father, known as Vinnie. The entire family went to watch Cohen Sr. in the courtroom, and Cohen liked the way all eyes were on his father, the son of Jamaican immigrant parents, who climbed out of New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood on a basketball scholarship to Syracuse. (He roomed with football-great-turned-movie-star Jim Brown.)
“I remember when he stood up and delivered what I now know to be a closing argument. I really appreciated how everyone listened to him,” Cohen said. “It was amazing.”
At Syracuse, Cohen tried to fashion himself into a mini-Vinnie. In a eulogy to his father, who died in 2011, he said: “Growing up, I never had to emulate athletes or rap artists. ... I had the perfect role model, right upstairs.”
Machen’s father was a chemist, teaching at Cheyney and Delaware State universities before uprooting the family from Philadelphia to work at Ford Motor Co. in Detroit when Machen was 9.
Though Machen was studious, he struggled with science. He would not follow in his father’s footsteps, but going to law school continued a family tradition of taking on law-and-order careers.
Machen said he was offered funding to attend law school at the University of Michigan, but his father intervened. “My dad was pretty clear: ‘You’re going to Harvard. Take out those loans,’ ” Machen recalled.
He interned at a Chicago law firm, was a summer associate at WilmerHale in Washington and then returned home to clerk for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon Keith, who at 91 remains one of the most respected judges in the country. “He came to me with a swagger. He had finished at Cranbrook. He had finished at Stanford, Harvard,” Keith said. “He was a little cocky. In a nice way.”
Machen was also brilliant and listened intently to the judge who explained to him that he could best learn law as a prosecutor, Keith said.
Meanwhile, Cohen didn’t hop from city to city. He wanted to clean up the District. “I knew I was coming back home,” he said. “This was the murder capital of the world. [Drug dealer] Rayful Edmond was running around. There was basically a drug war in D.C.”
Cohen first clerked under Superior Court Judge Cheryl M. Long, who became the first black woman to head the District’s public defender’s office in 1985 before her appointment as a judge three years later.
By 1997, Cohen and Machen both found themselves hired by then-U.S. Attorney Eric Holder.
It was Cohen’s first day on the job in September when Machen scooped him up for lunch. They shared mutual friends because of the fraternity. They spent that lunch break talking about the best way to approach cases. “He was my mentor the whole time I was here,” Cohen said.
Meanwhile, Cohen helped Machen in his personal life. He was the single father of a young son at the time and took Cohen up on invitations to his family home, where Machen could soak in advice from Cohen Sr. and be reminded of his own upbringing in Southfield.
Machen methodically made his way through different divisions within the office, finally finding he was best in homicide, colleagues remembered. “He volunteered for a lot of cases,” said Superior Court Judge Kimberley Knowles, who worked with the two men. “I did think it was ambition, but I didn’t know what his ambitions were.”
Machen and Cohen both mastered the courtroom “when they were both young puppy prosecutors,” said lawyer Michele Roberts, known for such high-profile clients as Anita Hill.
Cohen approached every case as if it were the biggest of his career, Roberts said. “This guy thought he was trying the Manson murders,” she said. “He was not at all intimidated by me, which I counted on, because young lawyers get sloppy.”
“I was amused by him.”
Then, she realized, “I had to step up my game.”
Machen left the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2001, and Cohen left about two years later. Both landed at big law firms. Machen returned to Wilmer Hale; Cohen first went to his father’s Hogan & Hartson and then to Schertler & Onorato.
Both men went into private practice to pursue personal financial stability. They began building their families. Machen’s wife, whom he married in 1998, is in marketing; Cohen’s wife is an oral surgeon.
Cohen and Machen became astute defense attorneys, though much of the success of their high-profile cases was in keeping clients from being convicted of more serious crimes.
Machen represented defense contractor Mitchell Wade, who admitted giving $1.8 million in gifts, including a boat and Persian rugs, to U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham in exchange for federal contracts. Cohen took on clients including former attorney general Alberto Gonzales and NBA All-Star Steve Francis.
In 2008, Barack Obama was elected president, setting off the hunt for a new U.S. attorney in the District. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) does not have a vote in Congress, but Democratic presidents have given her the courtesy of naming the U.S. attorney.
Among the three nominees that her committee provided, Machen impressed Norton most, she said, because of his promise to revive a community outreach program that had been dormant since Holder left the post in 1997. Machen’s résuméwas also stunning. “He has punched every ticket you could look for in a U.S. attorney,” she said.
Machen turned to Cohen for advice. The men had built a friendship on law, cookouts, going to games. Cohen had no hesitation when Machen asked him to be No. 2.
“Working for someone who is your friend is perfect,” Cohen said. “Friendship is based on trust. I trust Ron.”
It’s the public trust that they both eyed. Encouraged by former deputy assistant attorney general Mary Pat Brown and new boss Holder, Machen made fraud and public corruption a priority.
When Machen and Cohen talk about their successes in rooting out corruption, they talk most passionately about the victims.
Thomas illegally siphoned funds from the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., a quasi-public agency the city uses to distribute money to youth programs. “That is a fund for black kids. The victims here are minorities,” Cohen said. “You have to look at it from a victim’s perspective.”
Young people are important to Machen and Cohen, who frequently speak to teens about abiding by the law and preventing violent crimes.
Cohen said people sometimes don’t understand the impact that public corruption has on the people who are supposed to receive funds that are stolen and misused. “That’s money that would go to the kids we speak to. It’s not small stuff. It’s not misdemeanor stuff,” he said.
In the Kwame Brown case, the U.S. Attorney’s Office uncovered misdemeanor campaign violations but also more serious felony crimes. Cohen said Brown committed bank fraud against one of the oldest black banks in the country. “I don’t think anything’s minor about that,” Cohen said.
But it was the investigation of Michael Brown for bribery that perhaps cut deepest, especially for Cohen.
His father, Vincent H. Cohen Sr., was the first black partner at what is now Hogan Lovells. Ronald H. Brown, the first black chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was the first black secretary of commerce. Their sons, about five years apart, would sit courtside Saturday mornings as their fathers sweated and elbowed other black men who shouldered the responsibility of firsts, escaping into a few hours of weekend basketball, then brunch with their sons.
This is where friends and confidants have to explain what’s really going on with Machen and Cohen, who can’t publicly express how difficult the past four years have been.
Clifford Alexander, retired U.S. secretary of the Army, watched Cohen and Michael Brown grow up courtside during those games on Saturdays. Alexander was friends with their fathers; Cohen Sr. was his campaign chairman when he ran unsuccessfully for mayor.
It has been heartbreaking to watch the divergent paths the boys have taken as men, Alexander said.
He said Cohen has grappled with the situation. “The simplistic word would be ‘compartmentalized,’ ” Alexander said. “He felt personal sadness toward someone who was a family friend. [Yet] you have a professional obligation to prosecute.”
Former D.C. attorney general Robert Spagnoletti, who used to supervise Machen and Cohen, said they are not blind to their unique position.
The District adopted its unofficial nickname from the 1975 funk tune “Chocolate City” at a time when seven out of 10 residents were black. It is estimated that the city’s black population has now slipped below 50 percent.
“Ron and Vince are very aware of the racial implications of what they do,” said Spagnoletti, now chairman of the D.C. ethics board. “They are both extremely aware of the impact.”
Former D.C. police chief Isaac “Ike” Fulwood considers himself a friend to Machen, Cohen and Mayor Gray. In his office where he now serves as a U.S. parole commissioner, he lamented: “When I’m around and you talk to people, they are saddened by the corruption. They are saddened, because if you’re not careful, you hand it over. If you’re not careful, Vince could be the last black mayor.”
Among a dozen people hoping to be elected mayor in 2014, three white council members and two black council members are seen as having an equal chance in early polling and analysis as they challenge Mayor Gray, who was reluctant to get into the race because of the probe of his 2010 campaign. There’s a good chance the next mayor may not be black.
Former U.S. Attorney Joseph DiGenova says he knows what it’s like to be hated for bringing down the city’s black political leadership. He was repeatedly criticized for his public hunt of then-Mayor Barry, finally nabbed in the infamous crack-smoking sting at the Vista Hotel. Two decades later, DiGenova is still fighting the perception that he was out to get Barry. His unrelenting pursuit of Barry contributed to a backlash that put Barry back into office when he returned from prison.
DiGenova, who grew up in Delaware the son of an Italian opera singer, noted one major difference between him and Machen: “Because he’s African American, he ain’t the white man coming down on the black man.”
But what if you are two black men bringing down men and women who look like you in a city whose identity is rapidly shifting?
Fulwood, who questioned DiGenova’s motives in the 1980s, said it’s not the fault of Machen and Cohen.
“They did what they were supposed to do. If Vince [Gray] is the last guy, he failed. It’s not that Ron Machen and Vince Cohen failed,” he said.
For his part, Machen continues to stress that his office is out to clear the city of corruption, regardless of race. And he continues to vehemently reject any insinuation that he has not been fair.
“It is our obligation to protect those minority children and those minority businesses and stamp out that sort of corruption so that D.C. residents receive the honest and ethical government they deserve,” he said. “We won’t shrink from that responsibility because of false criticisms.”
Nikita Stewart has covered D.C. politics and government for The Washington Post. Staff researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.
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