Contentious D.C. Council meeting exposes tensions

Correction: An earlier version of this article said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) faced an inquiry by the Office of Campaign Finance over his constituent services fund. OCF officials asked Evans last fall to submit documentation to explain sporting-ticket purchases through the fund. The office did not launch a full investigation of the purchases. This version clarifies that point.

September 20, 2011

The D.C. Council’s Tuesday breakfast meeting was barely underway when one member accused his colleagues of hypocrisy for considering a tax increase even though some council members had failed to pay their taxes on time. He then cursed at a member who objected to his comments. A 20-year council veteran also tossed an expletive and later declared that this was the “worst council” he has ever served on.

This wasn’t how Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) envisioned the council’s return to business after its summer recess. In an interview Friday, he dismissed suggestions that the council was unraveling over ethical questions about several members, himself included.

“We are coming back fresh,” he said.

Instead, the frustrations and tensions that have been evident since the new council was seated in January seem to be growing, raising questions about whether the city’s legislative body will be able to function effectively. With criminal investigations or ethical questions hanging over five of the 13 members and half of the council seats up for election in seven months, some members expect things to get worse.

The D.C. Council, like any political institution, has always had to navigate rivalries, turf tussles and big egos, but members acknowledge that ethical issues, particularly the U.S. attorney’s investigations involving two members, including Brown, have put extra stress on their ability to work together.

“We are losing our moral authority to govern between the ethical lapses and hypocrisy,” said David A. Catania (I-At Large). The council voted 7 to 6 to pass the tax increase.

Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) said she is increasingly frustrated about the damaged reputation of the city’s government because of the controversies, in both the council and the office of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). “I don’t think anybody can be happy that the city is being dragged through the [news media] on a weekly basis,” Bowser said.

Although Brown has played down the effect of the turmoil, several members have said they don’t expect the mood in the John A. Wilson Building to improve until the U. S. attorney’s office concludes its investigations of Brown and council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5).

‘A cloud over the council’

Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who with 20 years on the dais is the longest-serving member of the current council, voiced the frustrations of several members when he said: “The ongoing investigations involving some of the members hopefully will be concluded in a quick time frame because as long as they’re ongoing, there is a cloud over the council.”

Privately, council members say trust and respect is all but gone; before Tuesday’s outbursts, members had been uttering insults behind each other’s backs, with the chairman as a frequent target. Racial tensions also have flared anew, as some have complained that black members’ ethical behavior has been scrutinized more intensely than whites’.

Brown last week argued that disagreement among the members was normal. “People have been shouting at each other since Dave Clarke, John Wilson,” he said, referring to the chairmen of the D.C. Council during the 1980s and 1990s.

“Back in the day, they used to throw down,” Brown said. “They would be cursing on the dais, fighting each other.”

Little did he know that he would be refereeing a similar fight Tuesday, in a conference room with the photos of the previous six council chairmen overlooking the oval table around which the members sat.

It started with a proposal by council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) to raise taxes on wealthy city residents. Catania, noting that at least two members had failed to pay their taxes on time, called the measure hypocritical. Mendelson quickly responded that he didn’t think it was appropriate for Catania to bring up his colleagues’ personal behavior as part of the debate. Before Mendelson could finish his sentence, Catania shot back, “I don’t give a shit what you think.”

Brown pleaded for order, but Evans, another opponent of a tax increase, snapped at Mendelson, calling his objection “bullshit.”

A couple of hours later at the council’s formal legislative session, Brown struggled to maintain control during three hours of debate on the tax increase, as members bickered over who got to talk first, who was recognized and whether the council’s rules of debate were being followed.

Evans unsuccessfully tried to push through an amendment to scrap the proposed tax increase. In response, Mendelson accused Evans of being “reckless and cynical.”

After the meeting, Evans declared: “This is the worst council I’ve ever served on in my 20 years on the council.”

Facing ethics inquiries

Since the beginning of the year, when the council was seated, at least five members have faced ethical scrutiny:

Brown started his tenure with a controversy, drawing criticism for requesting a luxury sport utility vehicle, then asking for another when the first one didn’t meet his color specifications, resulting in taxpayers picking up the tab for leases on both vehicles. The U.S. attorney’s office is looking into allegations that Brown’s 2008 campaign used a now-defunct political consulting firm to funnel $239,000 to a firm operated by his brother.

The U.S. attorney also is investigating allegations that Thomas diverted $300,000 in city funds from youth programs and used some of the money to pay for luxury cars and expensive trips. Thomas has not admitted wrongdoing but agreed in July to repay the money.

Evans was asked by the Office of Campaign Finance to submit documentation for expenses from his constituent fund services. Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) was investigated by OCF, which sought information about how purchases through her fund. Neither appears to have violated any rules governing the funds.

This year, council member Jim Graham’s former chief of staff, Ted G. Loza, was sentenced to eight months in prison after he admitted he received $1,500 from an FBI informant who sought his help to influence legislation related to the taxicab industry. At one point, Loza tried to pass a bribe to his boss. Graham (D-Ward 1) refused the money but did not report the attempted bribe.

Council members Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) have faced scrutiny for paying their taxes late. Barry also was censured by the council for giving his girlfriend a contract and receiving some of the money she was paid.

Questions raised

Shortly after Thomas repaid $300,000 to settle a lawsuit with the city’s attorney general, Catania and council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) called for his resignation. Other members have declined to follow suit, including Chairman Brown, who said the legal process has to “carry itself out” before the council considers any public rebuke of Thomas.

The three members who have called for Thomas to step down are white, while none of the African American members have suggested that Thomas, who is black, give up his seat.

“[T]here is a view among a segment of the Black population in the city that a double standard is applied to the alleged unethical conduct of Black politicians versus white politicians,” former council member Bill Lightfoot told the Georgetown Dish in an interview last week. “The [louder] outcry over the conduct of Harry Thomas does not seem to be [equal] to the outcry over Jim Graham’s conduct of not reporting a known bribe. Some people view that as a double standard.”

He soon got a phone call from Evans and Graham, and Lightfoot later told Post blogger Mike DeBonis that he was “not making any allegations of misconduct” and was not implying that Thomas’s alleged behavior is comparable to questions about other council members.

Several members have introduced ethics-reform bills, but there’s little optimism for any quick fixes to the council’s predicament.

“I don’t know any way out of this,” Graham said. “There is no one I would say who is in a position to say, ‘I’m going to lead you to the Promised Land.’ ”

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
Vanessa Williams is a deputy national editor at The Post and edits the She The People blog. She has covered and edited local and national politics for the paper. Contact her at Vanessa.Williams@washpost.com.
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