Barry’s gifts from city contractors are above legal limit


D.C. Councilman Marion Barry. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

D.C. Council member Marion Barry accepted nearly $7,000 in gifts from two city contractors, with some of the money going to pay for personal expenses, according to one of the donors.

Barry reported receiving gifts in 2012 worth $2,800 from Forney Enterprises and $4,000 from F&L Construction on a financial disclosure form he filed with city ethics authorities last month. The Ward 8 Democrat provided no description of the gifts or other details.

Under the council’s code of conduct, a member may not accept gifts worth more than $20 from “prohibited sources,” which include entities with “contractual or other business or financial relations with the District government.”

Both Forney and F&L have done significant recent business with the District government, including work on school-modernization projects. Forney has been paid $1.8 million in city funds this year, according to city records; a joint venture that includes F&L was paid $539,000 in that time.

Keith Forney, the owner of Forney Enterprises, said he did not remember the precise nature of the gift but recalled that it pertained to a personal expense.

“I think I paid something for him, might have been a bill or something for him at the time,” he said. “He was running a little low on something, and he supported me a long time ago. Nothing more than that.”

In a subsequent interview with the Associated Press, Forney said Barry “had a tight crunch” at the time and did not do anything in particular in return for the gift.

Freddie Winston, F&L Construction’s owner, did not respond to messages left at his office. The firm’s Web site lists several city government-funded projects, including construction jobs at Eastern High School, Dunbar High School and Nationals Park. The joint venture recently concluded work on the Raymond Recreation Center in Columbia Heights.

The code of conduct provides exceptions to the gift ban, including when the item is of “little intrinsic value” such as greeting cards or award plaques, is “motivated by a family relationship or personal friendship” or is a prize, benefit or discount available to the public. Personal bills are not among the exceptions.

Barry, whose council salary is $128,202, has had financial problems emerge into public view. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to failing to file income tax returns and received a sentence of probation. Court filings made in 2009 indicated he owed the federal government $277,000, with the Internal Revenue Service continuing to garnish his council wages.

Asked about the gifts this week, Barry initially declined to discuss them. “My forms speak for themselves,” he said.

He went on to characterize them as “loans,” although the disclosure form makes clear they were gifts. He said they were listed at the suggestion of his attorney Frederick D. Cooke Jr., then declined to discuss the matter further.

“I don’t want to discuss it,” he said.

Cooke declined to comment.

The council approved two contract modifications on Tuesday benefiting Forney Enterprises, approving payments worth $4.6 million. The contracts are for work done on the modernization of Simon and Leckie elementary schools, both in Ward 8.

The change orders were approved by acclamation, with two exceptions: Barry voted “present” along with David Grosso (I-At Large), who refrains from weighing in on contracting matters.

Council rules provide for a “present” vote, which is akin to an abstention, as well as a formal recusal if there is a possible conflict of interest, which requires that a written statement be submitted to the council chairman’s office.

Barry, 77, declined to detail the reasoning for his vote: “I’m not talking about it. I had a right to vote present.”

Darrin Sobin, the District’s director of government ethics, declined to comment except to note the code-of-conduct provisions. The Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, which collects the financial disclosures and whose staff Sobin leads, is charged with adjudicating violations and can recommend that a council member be reprimanded or censured.

Barry is the only D.C. Council member to have been censured. In 2010, his colleagues voted to rebuke him after a special counsel’s probe found that Barry had improperly given a council contract to a girlfriend and directed city funds to nonprofit groups he created and controlled. He lost a committee chairmanship, but regained it the following year.

In its only other disciplinary action, the council voted this year to reprimand Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) over conduct related to a Metro land deal and the city’s lottery contract.

Barry was one of two council members to report gifts from “prohibited sources” in 2012 financial disclosure forms, which were due May 15. Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) listed accepting tickets to seven events held by organizations, including the Metropolitan Washington AFL-CIO, Whitman-Walker Health and the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. They were valued at a combined $1,600.

Those appear to fall under an exception permitting gifts of “[t]ravel, food, and related expenses” for a member’s “attendance at a meeting or similar event” in an official capacity.

Mendelson declined to comment on Barry’s gifts “without knowing more of the facts,” he said, adding, “I’m glad he disclosed it, so now we can have this discussion.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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