Michael Brown case stirs debate on D.C. Council influence

Former D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown did not skimp on the grease he applied to the gears of the District government in trying to secure a key certification for two businessmen.

His entreaties came to the Department of Small and Local Business Development via phone and text messages, personally and through staff members. Court records indicate they came after business hours, during holidays and even after Brown was no longer a council member.

They were, in the end, for the benefit of undercover FBI agents, who paid Brown $55,000 to speed a “certified business enterprise” (CBE) designation for a company they set up. The certification gives firms a significant advantage in city contract bidding.

Brown pleaded guilty to a felony bribery charge Monday and now faces up to 37 months in prison under a deal with prosecutors.

U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said after the plea hearing that the case revealed more than simply Brown’s personal venality, saying he “tried to exploit a broken system” for profit — one in which politicians are “able to influence the process of who gets government contracts directly without any kind of independent oversight.”

“I leave it to the legislature to figure out what went wrong here,” he added. “But obviously I think there needs to be a hard look at what they can do to prevent this sort of conduct from reoccurring in the future.”

But on the D.C. Council, which has seen three of its members plead guilty to federal felonies over the past 18 months, there is skepticism at the suggestion that legislators ought to curb their influence over the government’s daily workings.

“People expect if they contact you with a complaint that you’re going to help them resolve it,” said Anita D. Bonds (D-At Large).

Influence, Bonds and several of her colleagues argue, is their ­raison d’etre. They pass legislation and hold oversight hearings, certainly. But every city legislator also employs at least one staff member devoted to “constituent services,” whose job is to cajole city agencies into responding to residents’ concerns.

Several council members said they have a hard time distinguishing between their workaday efforts to get things done and the “political influence” Machen said Brown improperly wielded.

“Elected officials across the country do that all the time,” said Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). “Constituent services is fundamental to government, but we’re not allowed to trade it for money.”

Effective intervention

Brown’s efforts to help the undercover agents’ purported business, known in court papers as “Company M,” were extensive and consisted of numerous personal interventions with a mayoral cabinet member.

The day after his first meeting with an undercover agent, when he accepted $15,000 cash stuffed into a duffel bag, Brown passed the agents the names and phone numbers of two DSLBD staff members.

About two weeks later, when the company had trouble getting a building occupancy permit from a separate agency, Brown again offered to help, according to court papers.

Three days later, Brown told the agent he had called the “head dude” to “see what’s up.” In October, the permit was granted, and in a phone call shortly afterward, Brown bragged about the effectiveness of his interventions.

“I don’t know what you did, man, but that . . . permit came through pretty quick,” the agent said.

“You’re damn, damn right it came through quick,” Brown replied.

Days before Christmas, Brown sent DSLBD Director Harold B. Pettigrew Jr. repeated texts and voice mails in hopes of having a temporary certification granted to the undercover firm. On the evening of Dec. 20, Pettigrew told Brown there was no longer a temporary certification but said he would try to “expedite the review and just approve it” as had been done with other firms seeking pending contracts.

“Things r moving,” Brown then texted one agent.

Brown continued contacting Pettigrew even after he had left the council on Jan. 2.

Later that month, the city agency would take steps toward approving the undercover company’s application, including making a visit to its offices. In March, one of the agents told Brown “we are in good shape now” and suggested one final meeting.

On March 14, Brown met with the businessmen, who handed him $20,000. Federal agents then entered the room, ending the under­cover operation.

Muscle vs. meddling

Though Brown’s efforts might have seemed excessive and unusual, Pettigrew said last week that they weren’t. He said Brown was one of several council members who had contacted him for help.

“None of them really asked for special help,” said Pettigrew, who left the department in March.

Though the CBE system has been the focus of significant scrutiny in recent months, with Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and legislators pledging to institute reforms, Machen hesitated to identify it as a locus of fraud.

Machen instead said the “broken system” he referred to involved political meddling in contracting matters generally.

He made reference to “pay-to-play” fears among city contractors, noting that Brown’s willingness to solicit bribes came to prosecutors’ attention from contractors who were afraid of paying illegal bribes but also afraid not to pay bribes and not get a fair shot at contracts.

The D.C. Council is tasked with approving or disapproving city contracts worth $1 million a year or more. That power has become controversial on several occasions, when decisions made by procurement panels have been questioned by legislators — often after vigorous lobbying from losing bidders.

Some members, notably Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), have suggested the council jettison its contracting powers, arguing “the danger of council members stepping over the line outweighs the council’s check and balance on the mayor.”

But Mendelson and Bonds are among a majority who do not agree, saying the council’s oversight of city spending is too valuable to give up. “I don’t think the public wants one individual deciding how the money is spent,” Bonds said, referring to the mayor.

And all three members agreed it would be difficult, if not impossible, to restrict how a council member should intervene in the city’s workings, including matters like CBE certification that could come to bear on contracting. While all said it would be inappropriate for a member to “pull strings” for a particular party, they said it is routine and harmless to inquire about the status of a matter.

“It would be very hard to draw a bright line” between the two, ­Evans said.

Mendelson said he agreed with Machen that contracting reforms need a “hard look” but questioned whether it is wise to curb the muscle of lawmakers who are elected to show muscle.

“There are many, many ways that an elected official can exert influence, and you can’t eliminate all of it,” Mendelson said. “It comes down to the moral fiber of the officeholder.”

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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