D.C. Council’s Brown lost driving privileges repeatedly for violations, unpaid tickets


D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown talks to former Council member Harry Thomas, left, before a meeting last year. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
September 15, 2012

D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown’s driver’s license has been suspended five times over the past eight years because of traffic violations and his failure to pay for the citations, city records show.

Brown (I-At Large) lost his driving privileges for a quarter of the time he’s served on the council, according to a 10-year driving record provided by the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles under a Freedom of Information Act request by The Washington Post.

The documents further illustrate the troubles Brown has had managing his personal and political affairs, which are becoming central to his reelection campaign. Those troubles include revelations last week that his campaign account is missing $113,950.

Brown, through his spokesman, declined to comment about his driving record or his campaign’s financial troubles.

The records show that, except for about 30 days, he could not drive from June 15, 2009, through March 8, 2010, after he accumulated 10 points or more on his driving record. Brown’s license also was suspended three times between 2005 and 2007 for unpaid traffic citations — before he joined the council.

The son of Ronald H. Brown, the late commerce secretary and Democratic National Committee chairman, Brown would appear to have the ideal pedigree for a career in public office — a politically solid family name and access to a network of deep-pocketed supporters.

Yet, despite those advantages and a charming demeanor, questions about Brown’s judgment are fueling attacks from his political opponents and becoming a key campaign issue.

“I supported Michael, but not this time,” said former D.C. Council member William P. Lightfoot (I-At Large), who has placed a sign for one of Brown’s opponents, attorney David Grosso, in his yard. “I believe Grosso is qualified and honest.”

Brown’s campaign troubles have surfaced just as he is gearing up for reelection to a D.C. Council seat reserved for a non-Democrat.

They are not the first problems Brown has had with campaign finances. After his successful 2008 run, the Office of Campaign Finance found more than $200,000 in discrepancies in his finance report. They included more than $80,000 in bounced checks and $16,000 in checks inappropriately made out to “cash,” records show.

Brown eventually reconciled the account before the matter was referred to OCF’s general counsel for further review, said OCF spokesman Wesley Williams.

Now, Brown’s reelection campaign is being questioned again. He narrowly qualified for the Nov. 6 ballot last week after the D.C. Board of Elections tossed out more than 1,500 of his petition signatures as duplicative, originating from unregistered voters or illegible.

On Monday, Brown amended his campaign report to account for $113,950 in “unexplainable” expenditures from July 2011 through June. Brown said the 34 expenditures were made by campaign treasurer Hakim J. Sutton, whom he dismissed in late June.

Because of the missing money, Brown had only $18,000 in the bank as of Aug. 10, less than a third of Grosso’s campaign fund.

D.C. police, the U.S. attorney’s office and OCF are investigating. Sutton’s attorney, J. Wyndal Gordon, has denied wrongdoing by Sutton. In a sharply worded statement Wednesday, Gordon suggested that Brown is responsible for the missing money.

The Brown campaign has dismissed Gordon’s charges as defamatory. But council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said his colleague’s campaign problems could be an example of his broader history of financial challenges.

“His situation is almost death by a thousand cuts,” Catania said. “You have these issues coupled with outstanding judgments in his personal dealings, and it just looks like a house that needs tidying up.”

Brown was dogged by ethical questions shortly after he began his professional career as a lawyer and lobbyist. In 1997, at age 32, Brown pleaded guilty to a federal misdemeanor charge that he made $4,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) under the names of three other people.

Brown went on to a lucrative career as a lobbyist while also serving as a member of the D.C. Boxing and Wrestling Commission from 1996 to 2005. But Brown’s legal and financial challenges continued.

In the mid-2000s, Brown and several partners defaulted on a luxury suite at Verizon Center, resulting in a $635,000 lawsuit. The controversy helped torpedo his 2006 bid for mayor and his candidacy for a Ward 4 council seat the following year.

In 2008, Brown became an independent to seek one of the at-large council seats reserved for a non-Democrat, challenging Republican Patrick Mara.

After a campaign that included advertising with the image of his late father, Brown pulled off a surprise victory with huge margins in majority-black neighborhoods, where voters flooded the polls to support Barack Obama.

“Particularly for older, black, middle-class residents, they remember Ron Brown quite warmly and vividly,” said Phil Pannell, former chairman of the Ward 8 Democratic Committee. “He is a known quantity, and Michael is a very upbeat campaigner. When he comes into a room, it’s like one of the favored relatives showing up at a family reunion.”

Cherita Whiting, who has known the council member since high school, said Brown was drawn to public service to make “his dad really proud of him.”

“His father was always doing things for the public and giving back, and he knew he would want him to become a public official and help those less fortunate,” Whiting said.

On the council, Brown has developed a progressive and labor-friendly voice — championing higher taxes on the wealthy over cuts in social programs. But this year, public pressure caused the council to repeal one of Brown’s top accomplishments — the 2009 legalization of Internet gambling — after questions were raised about whether the measure was publicly vetted before it was pushed through the council.

Brown’s legislative record has also been partially overshadowed by IRS tax liens, five foreclosure notices for failure to pay the mortgage on his Chevy Chase home, and missed rent payments on a city apartment. None of the foreclosure notices proceeded to sale.

According to Brown’s driving record, he received nine traffic citations from May 2005 through April 2010, including two for driving 16 to 20 mph over the speed limit in Virginia. He also was cited for two red-light violations in the District, “unreasonable speed” in New York and failure to use a seat belt in Virginia.

Brown’s license was suspended for unpaid tickets in Maryland from Jan 5, 2005, through Sept. 14, 2006, records show. Nine months later, on June 21, 2007, the District suspended his license for failure to pay a ticket. It was restored Oct. 9, 2007, records show.

But on June 15, 2009, just six months after he joined the council, Brown’s license was suspended by Virginia for 10 or more points on his driving record. It was restored Oct. 2, 2009, but Virginia suspended it again a month later because of 12 or more points on his record.

That suspension was withdrawn March 8, 2010.

Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

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.
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