D.C. Council panel recommends Barry censure

September 16, 2013

D.C. Council member Marion Barry faces the censure of his colleagues and the loss of his committee chairmanship under the recommendation of a special council panel that investigated his recent disclosure of accepting cash payments from city contractors.

The five-member disciplinary panel voted unanimously Monday for the proposed punishment, but it remains uncertain whether the full council will agree to strip Barry (D-Ward 8) of his position atop the Workforce and Community Affairs Committee.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) has set a council vote on the disciplinary panel’s recommendation for Tuesday’s legislative meeting.

The panel’s chairman, Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), said Monday morning that Barry’s acceptance of the payments “worsens the growing mistrust of District government officials.”

“This council is obligated to hold its members to account for their actions,” he said after the vote.

The other four members of the panel — Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), Anita D. Bonds (D-At Large), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and David P. Grosso (I-At Large) — did not speak before of the vote but several said afterward the sanction was justified.

“No one really wants to be put in this position,” Alexander said. “These are our colleagues, and they are also elected officials that their electorate has voted for. . . . However, it is our responsibility.”

Frederick D. Cooke Jr., Barry’s attorney, declined to comment Monday on the panel’s recommendations. Barry did not return calls for comment, but messages questioning the sanction appeared on his Twitter account Monday.

One message suggested the panel “did not follow their rules”; another said it “does NOT have legal authorization to recommend cmte chair removal.” But LaToya Foster, a spokeswoman for Barry, said she could not confirm Barry sent the tweets himself.

The Washington Post reported in June that Barry had filed a financial disclosure report indicating he had accepted two gifts last year totaling $6,800 from D.C. construction companies with business before the city. The District’s ethics law prohibits public officials from soliciting or accepting gifts from government contractors.

The city’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability subsequently investigated the matter 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 ethics board sanction, under council rules, triggered the review by Barry’s colleagues.

Barry and donor Keith Forney, the owner of Forney Enterprises, sat for interviews with panel members in August. Another donor, Freddie Winston, declined to be interviewed by the panel; he had also declined to be interviewed by the ethics board.

According to a report issued by the panel, Barry had told Forney in early 2012 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” between Barry and the construction firms, the report said. Both Barry and Forney told the panel the payments were not in exchange for any particular act.

A council censure, according to the body’s rules, is a “punitive action” reserved for circumstances in which a member exhibits a “gross failure to meet the highest standards of personal and professional conduct.” Imposing a censure requires a two-thirds vote of the council, or nine of 13 members.

The panel’s report said the sanction “demonstrates that a significant breach of the public trust will not be tolerated by this Council, and that members whose actions cast substantial doubt on the integrity of the Council will be rebuked.”

The report also said the sanction took into account that this would be Barry’s second censure and loss of committee privileges. He was sanctioned in 2010 for improperly giving a council contract to a girlfriend and directing city funds to nonprofit groups he created and controlled. He lost a committee chairmanship but regained it the next year.

The disciplinary panel said in its report that it “sought to balance the need for a significant penalty fitting of the breach of public trust and the fact that this would be [Barry’s] second censure” against his voluntary disclosure of the payments and his cooperation with the subsequent investigations.

Mendelson called on members to support the disciplinary package, saying the council’s credibility was at stake.

“The eyes are on us,” he said.

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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