Colbert King: With Marion Barry, the corruption continues

September 20, 2013

The D.C. Council’s censure of Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) was not the most consequential event of the week. Barry’s takedown was eclipsed by the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, the U.S.-Russian agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons and even the council’s failed attempt to overturn the mayor’s veto of the anti-Wal-Mart bill.

But Barry’s sanctioning is still worth considering. In taking on a notorious violator of the public trust, the council enabled voters to measure their elected officials’ capacity to hold to high ethical standards. On that score, three members — Vincent Orange (D-At Large), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) — were found sadly wanting. More on them later.

Barry, however, is in a category of his own.

In fact, the four-term-mayor-turned-council-member is so far out there he may function in an alternate reality.

How else to explain how someone convicted of possessing crack cocaine in a federal bust seen around the world, who served six months in prison, who has been sentenced to three years’ probation for failing to file and pay federal and local taxes, who has been slapped with federal liens because of unpaid taxes, who has been censured twice by the councilfor misconduct and who has leveled racist remarks against Asian Americans and slurs against Poles . . . still functions as if his universe is so superior to ours that he is free to recidivate to a fare-thee-well.

He also judges others.

Think I jest?

During the council’s contentious debate last year to fill its vacant chairmanship after the forced resignation of Kwame Brown — which came on the heels of Harry Thomas Jr.’s resignation and guilty plea to two felony counts — Barry exclaimed from the dais: “This city’s in serious trouble, credibility trouble. We are the laughingstock of the nation.”

Not one hint of his own signal contribution to the D.C. government’s unending tragic comedy.

On Tuesday, the council voted 9 to 4 to censure Barry and recommend that he be stripped of his committee chairmanship. “Taking thousands of dollars in cash payments from contractors with business before the city,” as The Post reported, can win that kind of condemnation.

The majority — led by Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Ward 5 representative Kenyan R. McDuffie (D), chairman of the ad hoc committee that recommended disciplinary action — decided that Barry’s violations were intolerable.

Marion Barry, whom I first met more than 30 years ago, is a known quantity. His vote against his censure, therefore, was no surprise.

Yet standing shoulder to shoulder with him in opposing the council majority were Orange, Graham and Evans. A motley crew of ethicists if ever there were one.

Allow me to make introductions.

Vincent Orange is the first elected public official to be officially sanctioned by the newly created D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability. Orange had intervened in the Health Department’s inspection of a rat-infested warehouse operated by a major campaign contributor. “Mr. Orange knowingly used the prestige of his office or his public position for the private gain of that business,” according to the settlement Orange negotiated with the board. The public admonition was accompanied by a requirement that the council veteran, a lawyer and accountant, get ethics training.

Jim Graham, on the ethics front, is a three-peat.

First, an investigation ordered by the Metro board of directors found that Graham had violated the agency’s ethics ruleswhen he tried to influence plans to develop a Metro-owned site.

Second, the D.C. ethics board criticized Graham, saying that it had uncovered “substantial” evidence that he broke the District’s code of employee conduct in 2008 by intervening with a local business owner in the Metro land deal. The board wasn’t able to sanction Graham or levy penalties, it said, because no penalties were in place for council members at the time of Graham’s misconduct.

Third, the council formally reprimanded Graham and stripped him of his power to oversee the liquor board for intervening in a city lottery contract dispute.

Jack Evans, alternately, prides himself on having no ethical charges on his record. However, the Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) has opened an inquiry into whether his constituent services fund accepted contributions that violated city regulations. Evans has called it “a routine observation.” This week, OCF spokesman Wesley Williams advised via e-mail that, three weeks in, the investigation is still open.

At the Navy Yard, the guns are silent. U.S. ships are not firing on Syria. The Wal-Mart fight has ended. And our drama at the Wilson Building continues.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.

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