How to ‘explain’ those D.C. scandals

Robert McCartney
Columnist June 6, 2012

As District residents venture away from home for vacation this summer, they can expect a barrage of humiliating questions from relatives and friends along the lines of, “What’s with all your corrupt city politicians? It’s just like the Marion Barry years!”

The questioners are wrong, of course. The situation today is serious, for sure, but it’s completely different from the time when Barry (D) was mayor.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

To set things straight, here are four things proud Washingtonians can say to help defend their home town while acknowledging its current shortcomings:

“Apart from the politicians, the city’s in good shape.” Outsiders will probably be surprised to learn that the criminal charges against today’s elected officials are much worse than during the Barry period, but otherwise the government functions significantly better.

The sad news is that some of our highest-ranking politicians have paid astonishingly little heed recently to the need to respect federal laws. Kwame R. Brown (D) resigned from his D.C. Council chairman’s post and from the panel Wednesday after being charged with bank fraud. Earlier this year, then-council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D) pleaded guilty to embezzlement.

Although Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) hasn’t yet been directly implicated and has denied wrongdoing, two officials from his 2010 campaign also recently pleaded guilty to felonies.

By contrast, for all the damage that Barry, as mayor, did to the District’s reputation, he was convicted of a mere misdemeanor — for possessing cocaine. (He’s had other troubles since then.) No elected official was convicted of corruption during Barry’s four terms as mayor.

As for the overall quality of life, the District is faring remarkably better than when Barry last was mayor. The homicide rate is down, and city services are more reliable. The Circulator bus and red rental bikes make it easier to get around downtown. Office developers see the city as one of the most attractive places in the world to invest.

The District’s finances are solid, with reserves up about $300 million from a year ago. Wall Street is happy to lend the city money. That helps protect against the risk that Congress might want to intervene in District affairs on the supposition that city representatives can’t run things properly.

“At least nobody’s defending these clowns.” This is a notable improvement from the Barry case. Then, much of the city rallied to his defense and complained he had been unfairly targeted for a personal vice. That contributed to ugly, underlying tensions within the city between voters outraged by Barry and those who felt he was being persecuted for political and racial reasons.

By contrast, as far as I can tell, nobody of significance is complaining publicly today that the U.S. Attorney’s Office has treated Brown and Thomas unfairly.

I recently interviewed voters in the two politicians’ home wards, 7 and 5, respectively, about the District’s recent scandals. There was regret and disappointment but also a strong feeling that officials needed to be held accountable.

One reason for the different perspective: Both Brown and Thomas were charged with financial crimes that allowed them to enjoy a more luxurious lifestyle. Thomas stole money to pay for expensive golf trips, while Brown allegedly used the tainted cash to buy a boat.

“A well-liked veteran is ready to take over temporarily.” Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) has emerged as the most likely candidate to be elected interim chairman of the D.C. Council to succeed Brown, according to several officials and political observers. He would remain in place until a special election.

Mendelson has been on the council for 14 years and is well-known throughout the city. He probably will get the interim job mainly because he doesn’t offend anybody.

That’s no recipe for a strong chairmanship, but putting Mendelson in place would allay concerns that a power vacuum could develop. Remember that the council chairman is next in line to the mayoralty, at a time when the mayor, too, is under serious federal investigation.

“We’ll never let this happen again.” In the long run, this is the most important thing that any District resident can pledge in the wake of the current wave of scandals. Unfortunately, it could be an empty promise.

At the end of last year, the D.C. Council passed reforms, including establishing a new ethics panel. But it took Gray months to name members of the body, which won’t be fully functional for many more months.

In the past, the District has not deployed enough investigators with sufficient staff and legal powers to serve as serious watchdogs on campaign abuses and funding scams. In the last council primary elections, despite all the uproar over scandals, every incumbent was reelected.

Until voters insist that politicians do better, District residents will be making more apologies for their city’s reputation.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). For earlier columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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