The District’s fledgling ethics board on Thursday delivered its most substantial sanction to date of an elected official, censuring D.C. Council member Marion Barry and fining him $13,600 for accepting illegal gifts from city contractors.
The Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, which assumed responsibility for policing city government in October, voted unanimously to approve a settlement with Barry (D-Ward 8) after a two-month investigation into gifts he listed in a May financial disclosure report.
The Washington Post reported in June that the gifts — totaling $6,800 and provided by two District construction companies — appeared to violate city ethics laws prohibiting public officials from soliciting or accepting gifts from city contractors. Barry also appeared to have violated the council’s code of conduct by voting on matters involving the contractors without disclosing the gifts.
Darrin Sobin, the board-appointed director of government ethics, said the penalty could have included a fine equal to three times the amount of the gifts. But he said a lower fine was justified because there was no evidence of a “direct quid pro quo arrangement” and the gifts were disclosed voluntarily, as well as there being concerns about Barry’s ability to pay.
The board also voted to refer the matter to outside authorities, such as the District’s inspector general or the U.S. attorney’s office, to investigate whether the gift-givers had violated ethics laws.
Barry, 77, said in a statement released Thursday evening that “character and integrity remain intact,” highlighting his voluntary disclosure of the illegal gifts. “No one had to look under a rock for it,” he said. “I disclosed it.”
His attorney, Frederick D. Cooke Jr., said in an interview that he and Barry were “happy to have the matter resolved.”
Sobin said Barry, in agreeing to the fine and censure, was “contrite.”
One gift, of $2,800, was from Forney Enterprises, a company that recently completed work worth $1.8 million on an elementary school in Barry’s ward. The owner, Keith Forney, previously told The Post that the money was intended to pay Barry’s personal bills.
Sobin said Forney, in an interview with investigators, had a “foggy” recollection of the gift. Forney said he “felt bad” for Barry, Sobin recalled. Barry “looked like he needed some money, so [Forney] gave him some money,” Sobin said.
Cooke declined to discuss the circumstances of the gifts, but Barry’s financial problems have long been a matter of public record. He pleaded guilty in 2005 to failing to file income tax returns and received a sentence of probation. Court filings in 2009 indicated that he owed the federal government $277,000, and the Internal Revenue Service was continuing to garnish his council wages. His council salary is $128,202.
Fewer details are known about a second gift, of $4,000, from F&L Construction. Principals of the company declined to be interviewed without a subpoena, Sobin said, and investigators decided there was little justification for holding up the investigation. An attorney for the firm, A. Scott Bolden, disputed the amount Barry reported, but he declined to discuss the matter further with a reporter.
On Wednesday, Barry recused himself from voting on two contract modifications involving F&L, citing the ethics probe. He did not recuse himself from a contract modification involving Forney in April. But Sobin said there was no evidence the gifts influenced Barry’ s vote on the measure, which allowed Forney to be paid for completed work and passed the council unanimously.
The Barry settlement represents the first time the ethics board has levied a fine on an elected official. But it is the third time the board has scolded a D.C. Council member for running afoul of the city’s code of conduct.
In February, the board found “substantial” evidence that Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) violated the code of conduct when he intervened in a 2008 contract dispute. But the board determined that it had no authority to discipline him because the acts in question predated the board’s authority.
Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) was admonished but not fined under a May settlement that found he acted improperly by intervening in a Health Department inspection of a campaign donor’s business.
In other business Thursday, the board voted to issue a notice of violation to former council member Michael A. Brown, who pleaded guilty last month to a federal bribery charge. Brown could be fined up to $165,000 for accepting $55,000 in payments from undercover federal agents.
The board’s censure is separate from any action Barry’s colleagues might take against him. The council voted to reprimand Graham after the ethics board criticized his conduct, but it took no action against Orange. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he would appoint a five-member committee Friday to consider potential sanctions in the Barry matter.
If he is disciplined, it will be the second time Barry has been rebuked by his colleagues. In 2010, Barry became the first council member ever censured after a special investigator found that he had improperly given a council contract to a girlfriend and directed city funds to nonprofit groups that he created and controlled. He lost a committee chairmanship, but regained it the following year.
Under the settlement finalized Thursday, Barry agreed to pay half the fine within 14 days, with the remainder to be paid in four quarterly payments starting in October. He must also undergo ethics training within six months. If Barry fails to comply with the agreement, he will be subject to a hearing and the possibility of further sanctions.