Federal prosecutors charged Brown (D) on Wednesday with a felony count of bank fraud; he resigned and is expected to plead guilty Friday.
The charge comes precisely five months after Brown’s former council colleague Harry Thomas Jr. (D) pleaded guilty to stealing public funds, and prosecutors remain trained on Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 campaign after securing felony guilty pleas from two campaign operatives.
But Brown’s demise stands to leave a serious scar on the local body politic.
In the first 37 years of D.C. home rule, no mayor or council member resigned under criminal duress. Now Brown becomes the second to do so in a matter of months.
He is also the first D.C. Council chairman — the city’s second-highest elected office — to resign.
His departure further upsets a political scene that just two years ago appeared to resemble a carefully stacked apple cart, with Brown in a prime spot to assume the mayor’s job.
And now some congressional leaders, for the first time in more than a decade, are seeing an opening to question the city’s locally elected leadership.
“City leaders keep arguing for more autonomy, but it’s hard to get there when so many people keep getting indicted,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a member of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, which has jurisdiction over District matters. “This is embarrassing, and the city deserves better.”
Chaffetz added that “by and large, people from outside D.C. don’t view the city leadership very favorably.”
The recent turmoil stands in odd contrast to the city government’s last period of unrest — and congressional intervention — in the early 1990s. Aside from Mayor Marion Barry’s 1990 drug arrest, which resulted in a misdemeanor conviction — the city’s ailments had more to do with rampant mismanagement than with criminal wrongdoing by elected officials.
Today’s investigations into Thomas, Brown and Gray are juxtaposed with stuffed coffers, competent government services, a growing population and a widespread sense that the city is on the upswing. Brown’s alleged offense did not involve misuse of his official position.
Still, plenty in the city are wondering when the city’s improvement will be matched by an improvement in the conduct of its elected leaders.
“I have to tell you, everybody is waiting for what other shoes will drop,” said Jim Dinegar, president and chief executive of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. “Or is this the last one?”
It’s a sudden uncertainty. Two years ago, when Brown was an at-large council member, his path to the top was clear: With Gray (D) running for mayor, Brown was an overwhelming favorite to succeed him as council chairman. Brown, 41, would then become heir apparent to the mayor’s office, and with Gray in his late 60s, he might not have had to wait long.