Michael A. Brown, now-jailed D.C. lawmaker, continues to fight ethics charges


Former D.C. council member Michael A. Brown, center, leaves the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia after a hearing on federal bribery charges on June 10, 2013. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
August 19, 2014

Former D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown (D), caught in a federal bribery sting, has traded his once-plush lifestyle for the confines of an Alabama prison camp, where a judge has ordered him to spend the next three years.

But Brown’s battle with authorities has not ended with his prison sentence. Documents show that the 49-year-old son of late Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown Jr. continues to fight the District government’s ethics board over charges that could result in large fines. Among his arguments: that city ethics rules “do not cover the circumstances of an FBI sting operation.”

The Board of Ethics and Government Accountability leveled four charges against Brown in July 2013, less than a month after he pleaded guilty in federal court to accepting $55,000 in cash bribes from people he believed to be businessmen seeking an important city certification but who were actually federal agents.

The ethics charges included violations of city laws prohibiting employees from accepting certain gifts, engaging in conflicts of interest and using the “prestige of office for personal gain.”

Together, under city law, Brown faces fines of $165,000, three times the amount he accepted in bribes.

His court sentence included a 39-month prison term, two years of supervised release and 200 hours of community service. It did not include a fine, which U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts waived, citing Brown’s inability to pay.

Brown challenged the ethics claims in a response filed last month before he reported to prison. He argued that he did not actually break city laws in part because the “businessmen” he took bribes from, being federal agents, were not seeking to do business with the city.

D.C. ethics laws do not “contemplate actions of an official during a law enforcement operation,” wrote attorney Tracey L. Brown, who is Michael Brown’s sister. “Further, any monies that Mr. Brown received from the FBI did not confer a benefit on Mr. Brown, or anyone else, since they were fully repaid to the government.”

Brown offered several additional defenses, including that his wrongdoing was “fully, fairly, and finally” punished through the federal court judgment, that such wrongdoing is “singularly enforced” by the Justice Department, that the ethics charges represent constitutionally impermissible double jeopardy and that his right to a fair hearing was violated by “biased and prejudicial comments” from ethics board workers.

Those allegedly prejudicial comments came at a July 2013 meeting, when the board first announced the charges.

One board member, Deborah Lathen, said she hoped that the matter could be resolved before Brown began “living at taxpayers’ expense,” according to a Washington City Paper report quoted in Brown’s filing.

The same report quoted Darrin P. Sobin, director of government ethics, as saying there was “big money at stake” in the proceeding.

Those comments, Brown’s filing said, “reflect a clear bias against Mr. Brown and frankly a cavalier and unprofessional attitude.” He is seeking Lathen’s and Sobin’s recusals.

No recusals will be forthcoming, Sobin said Tuesday. “Neither me nor the board member did anything improper,” he said.

Under the board’s rules, Brown is entitled to an open hearing to present his case before any sanctions are levied. No hearing has been scheduled, and it is unclear how a hearing might proceed given Brown’s incarceration. The status of his case was not discussed by the ethics board during its regular monthly meeting last week.

Tracey Brown declined to comment Tuesday.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.
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