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U.S. Attorney Ron Machen should step up his D.C. corruption probes

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Votes have been counted. Winners are smiling; losers are sulking. Life, as we know it, should go on. But it can’t.

A major piece of business is still hanging fire: sorting out the city’s corrupt from the incorruptible.

Without progress on that front, government in the District remains tainted.

The sorting out falls to U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. He’s due no pity. The task is of his own choosing.

Machen has said that when he took office in 2010, rooting out public corruption in the District was his top priority.

In a recent Washingtonian magazine article, Machen declared that D.C. officials must be held accountable and that “The people of this city deserve ethical, strong leadership.” He promised, “When people violate the law who are in positions of trust, there are going to be consequences.”

After teeing up the issue with fanfare, has Machen delivered on his promise of “consequences”? The answer is not as definitive as Machen’s declaration.

Yes, two former members of the D.C. Council have pleaded guilty to felonies. Harry Thomas Jr. is in prison; Kwame Brown awaits sentencing.

Chalk up those convictions to Machen.

But it’s no stretch to say the groundwork leading to the charges against Thomas was laid by dogged investigative work by The Post’s editorial board and a probe conducted by the D.C. attorney general’s office. That office found that Thomas had diverted some $300,000 in public funds for his personal use.

So the Thomas case was low-hanging fruit.

Likewise, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics referred the case against Brown to Machen in July 2011 to investigate allegations of financial wrongdoing in Brown’s 2008 campaign. The feds did not discover Brown’s missteps on their own.

You may be wondering about the three senior aides to Vincent Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign — Thomas Gore, Howard Brooks, Jeanne Clarke Harris — who have pleaded guilty to felonies. Give Machen credit.

But again, without help from others — minor Democratic candidate Sulaimon Brown, who publicly charged that he was paid to stay in the 2010 mayoral race and harass then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, and the subsequent reporting by The Post’s Nikita Stewart, Mike DeBonis and Tim Craig — federal prosecutors might be twiddling their thumbs.

As for those “consequences” Machen promised to rain down upon the heads of the city’s corrupt, let’s review the record.

Kwame Brown pleaded guilty to providing false information on applications to obtain two bank loans worth more than $200,000 and, according to Machen, has been cooperating with the prosecution.

If the court buys Machen’s recommendations, Brown will spend — drum roll, please — six days in jail . . . to be served over three weeks, followed by three years of supervision.

The corrupt must be shuddering, right?

Howard Brooks pleaded guilty to lying to federal authorities about giving payments from Gray’s campaign to Sulaimon Brown.

And Machen’s “consequences”?

For Brooks’s “substantial assistance” to federal prosecutors, he was sentenced to 24 months of probation and ordered to perform 200 hours of community service — a sentence Machen did not oppose.

Only prosecutors and defense attorneys know what Brown and Brooks gave up in exchange for Machen’s display of leniency.

It had better be good, but who knows?

The splashy Washingtonian article, complete with a photo of Machen, sleeves rolled up, leaning on his desk, glaring at the camera, suggested that even with all Machen has on his plate — national security cases, murder and drug prosecutions — he is personally involved in the Gray investigation.

Toward what end? Thus far, Machen has yet to land any big fish.

To be sure, Brooks, Gore and Harris are not minnows. They are more like perch.

Sharks are still in the water.

Asked about this, a federal official speaking on background noted to me that Gray and big-time D.C. business owner Jeffrey E. Thompson — who is thought to have supplied money that Harris gave to relatives, friends and employees to make campaign contributions to various federal and local political candidates — have lawyered up with some of the best representation in town.

What’s more, the official said, folks who may know stuff aren’t talking, and that is making Machen’s job harder.

But Machen, he said, isn’t dragging his feet or chasing his tail. More than a dozen federal lawyers are working full time on the corruption probe.

On top of that, a federal grand jury reportedly is probing the D.C. Lottery contract awarded by Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is poring over the records of Gandhi’s operation.

Citizens troubled by the clouds lingering over their city and the lack of information have a right to ask: “How long, O Lord, how long?”

kingc@washpost.com

Read more on this issue from Opinions: The Post’s View: Jim Graham’s breach of duty Colbert King: Unraveling D.C.’s scandals

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