‘Turkeys of the Year’ for 2012 in D.C. region

Robert McCartney
Columnist November 21, 2012

It has come to my attention that ProgressVA, a liberal organization based near Charlottesville, began naming a “Turkey of the Year” in the Old Dominion in 2011.

Ahem. Your not-so-humble columnist started this tradition in the Washington region a full year earlier. (Whew.) I have the clip to prove it.

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

Of course, a quick Google search reveals that Minnesota sportswriter Patrick Reusse has been selecting sports turkeys each Thanksgiving for more than three decades. But this is the Metro section, and he’s a thousand miles away, so I’m not sweating it.

My awards honor outstanding acts of foolishness or ineptitude, especially of a self-defeating variety. As always, area candidates abound. Here are the “winners,” in no particular order, except the No. 1 Turkey comes at the end.

Kwame Brown and Harry Thomas Jr. I have to start with these two former D.C. Council members, who both pleaded guilty to felonies in 2012. In six short months, the two Democrats managed to set a new low for illegal behavior by D.C. politicians. They became the first D.C. Council members to resign under duress in 37 years of home rule.


Maryland's 3rd Congressional District (The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

Brown, who was chairman of the council, is our first-ever Two-Time Turkey. He won last year for ordering an expensive Lincoln Navigator SUV at taxpayers’ expense — and sending it back because he didn’t like the seat color.

He’s here now for the rather more serious crime of bank fraud. He committed it partly to get a loan to buy a boat he almost never used.

Thomas, who was the Ward 5 council member, built his career partly on publicity over his support for youth sports. Now he’s in prison for embezzling more than $350,000 of taxpayer funds intended for youth sports programs.

Helen Dragas. The University of Virginia rector, who chairs the Board of Visitors, drew national notoriety for causing 16 days of needless and damaging turmoil at the state’s flagship campus.

First, Dragas secretly conspired to oust the school’s president, Teresa Sullivan. Then she retreated in humiliation and reinstated Sullivan in the face of growing protests.

Dragas and a fellow board member spent more than $250,000 on consultants for communications advice in a crisis that will be an excellent business school case study in disastrous communication.

Dishonorable mention to Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) for reappointing Dragas after the fiasco.

Verizon. In the close-fought contest for which local utility performed worst in the derecho on June 29, the telecommunications giant edged perennial contender Pepco by letting its vital 911 service go down in much of Northern Virginia.

Verizon didn’t have enough working, backup generators to support 911 calls in the middle of a major storm when need for such service is highest. The company didn’t even know 911 was down in Fairfax until it was notified by county officials.

Maryland Democrats. The Free State’s dominant party grossly gerrymandered the map of new congressional districts. It did so to steal a seat from the GOP and, along the way, help Baltimore area Democrats at the expense of those in the Washington suburbs.

The new district represented by U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes (D) is particularly contorted. Comedy Central labeled it the nation’s ugliest, declaring: “3rd Congressional District, you so ugly, you make blind people cry.”

Virginia Republicans. GOP legislators in the General Assembly attracted widespread mockery for pushing a bill that would require invasive ultrasounds of any woman seeking an abortion.

The bill was toned down before it passed, but the political damage lived on. It weakened McDonnell’s hopes to be picked as Mitt Romney’s running mate. It also hurt the GOP’s standing with women prior to the November election, in which Republicans lost in Virginia in both the presidential and U.S. Senate contests.

Columnist Robert McCartney. While trashing others, I think it’s only fair to acknowledge at least one bone-headed move of my own. This year, it emerged that I was severely mistaken in an Aug. 22 column about the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the agency that oversees Dulles and Reagan National airports.

My point in the column was to defend the reputation of the authority’s 1,400 professional staff and other workers. The agency has myriad problems, but I put all the blame on the 12 political appointees on its board of directors.

It turned out the staff has had plenty of problems, too. A federal audit issued Nov. 1 found employees had improperly accepted Super Bowl tickets, trips to resorts and other gifts from contractors. Hiring of relatives was common despite anti-nepotism rules.

Journalistic lesson for self: You can’t be too cynical.

Now, the No. 1 Turkey of 2012:

Penn National Gaming. The major casino gambling company spent more than $40 million on television spots and other advertisements warning Maryland voters against various shortcomings of . . . casino gambling.

The hypocritical ads’ real goal was to prevent one of Penn National’s top rivals, MGM Resorts International, from getting permission in a statewide referendum to construct a casino at National Harbor in Prince George’s County.

Penn National didn’t want the new facility to lure bettors away from its highly profitable casino in Charles Town, W.Va.

Voters weren’t fooled — they approved the expansion. Bottom line: Penn National is out the $40 million it spent on the unsuccessful ad campaign, plus its West Virginia casino will lose much of its business.

Happy Thanksgiving!

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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