Marion Barry, the city’s most well-known and polarizing politician, was censured Tuesday by his D.C. Council colleagues for taking thousands of dollars in cash payments from contractors with business before the city.
The council voted 9 to 4 to strip Barry of his committee chairmanship, with some colleagues describing Barry’s lapse as another mark on the city’s dismal ethics record. In the past two years, three council members have pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges.
For Barry, the censure was the second in three years and another transgression in a checkered political career.
As mayor in 1990, Barry was convicted of cocaine possession. More recently, as a council member, tax troubles resulted in probation. He was censured and stripped of a chairmanship in 2010 for giving a council contract to a girlfriend and directing city funds to nonprofit groups he created and controlled.
After that sanction, Barry lost his leadership post for a year. This time, the earliest Barry could regain a chairmanship is 2015.
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who chaired a disciplinary panel that investigated Barry’s conduct, urged the full council to support the committee’s recommendation, saying the seriousness of Barry’s violation and his record of “recidivism” merited a “swift and serious” response from the council.
McDuffie said removing Barry as chairman of the Committee on Workforce and Community Affairs would demonstrate “that a significant violation of the public trust will not be tolerated.”
Barry began a wandering defense of his actions, saying he “cooperated fully” with the panel. He then grew more defiant, questioning the council’s authority to remove his chairmanship.
Council members Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) came to Barry’s defense, saying the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability’s decision to fine Barry $13,600 and require ethics training should have concluded the investigation.
“I in no way endorse what Mr. Barry did; he shouldn’t have done it,” Evans said. “But in this case, Mr. Barry recognized that he had done something wrong — came forward with it.”
McDuffie responded that the council “has an obligation, in fact, a duty, to police itself and its own members.”
The Washington Post reported in June that Barry had disclosed accepting two gifts last year totaling $6,800 from D.C. construction companies. D.C. law prohibits gifts from government contractors.
The city’s ethics board investigated and came to a settlement with Barry, who agreed in July to accept a censure from the board and pay a $13,600 fine. The sanction triggered the council investigation.
According to a report issued by the panel, Barry had told Keith Forney, the owner of Forney Enterprises, in early 2012 that he was “experiencing financial difficulty” related to a federal tax lien but “did not overtly ask for money.”
At least one of the cash payments, the report said, was passed from Forney to Barry during a meeting at the Stadium Club, a Northeast Washington strip club co-owned by Forney.
The panel found “insufficient evidence of a quid pro quo arrangement.” Both Barry and Forney told the panel that the payments were not in exchange for any particular act.
Orange proposed reducing the sanction against Barry, allowing him to keep his chairmanship.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) opposed the effort to weaken the censure and urged the council to consider how it would look to the public. “We are going to be judged. . . by how we judge a colleague’s conduct.” Mendelson also said the buck stops with Barry’s colleagues, not the ethics board formed in response to recent scandals. “We are in a better position to evaluate our own conduct than anyone else,” he said.
David Grosso (I-At Large), a member of the panel that investigated Barry, also opposed the weakened censure. He said the supposed mitigating factor that Barry disclosed the lapse himself was irrelevant.
The measure failed, 9 to 4, with Orange, Evans and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) siding with Barry, the same vote as the final tally on censure. Imposing a censure requires a two-thirds vote of the council, or nine of 13 members.
Barry said afterward that he was “not disappointed” in the sanction. “That’s not the only thing in life, to chair a committee,” he said.
Anita Bonds (D-At Large), a longtime friend and former political aide to Barry, sat on the ethics panel and supported the sanction approved Tuesday. But she said Barry would not be marginalized without a committee post.
“He’ll find a way to blossom,” she said.
Mendelson said he would speak with his colleagues before proposing a realignment of committee responsibilities, with council action coming no sooner than Oct. 1.