June 15, 2012

The owners of Washington’s sports teams must get a real hoot watching the District’s officials behave like pigeons in the park. Toss a handful of crumbs in the form of free event tickets and watch as city “leaders” squabble and climb all over one another to snatch up a freebie or two.

Where’s the self-respect that would prompt them to tell the owners, “Thanks, but no thanks, we’ll pay our own way”?

Where is the regard for the dignity of the offices to which they were elected? Unfortunately, that’s not even a passing thought to most politicians in the John A. Wilson Building.

Now, the moochers will tell you that the free tickets are the result of agreements made between stadium owners and the city when the structures were built. But the owners didn’t force the arrangement. Free tickets for the city were part of the cost extracted to get the facilities constructed, and the moochers know it.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “They can’t take away our self-respect if we do not give it to them.” That’s a lesson our leaders have yet to learn.

That lack of self-respect and disregard for high standards of conduct were on display again this week.

One of the D.C. Council’s first official acts after the departure of Kwame R. Brown, now a convicted felon, from the chairmanship was to install as chairman pro tempore Michael A. Brown, an at-large council member. Though a great disappointment, this came as no surprise.

Best known for his federal and city tax problems and a 1997 guilty plea to a federal campaign finance charge, Michael Brown is now one heartbeat away from becoming interim council chairman.

The significance of Brown’s elevation was probably beyond the comprehension of most members. Michael Brown beat at-large council member Vincent B. Orange by an 8-4 vote. Seemingly crazed by the prospect of losing, Vincent Orange verbally acted out. Of course, Orange’s meltdown of common sense didn’t help his cause.

As the council meeting ended, members were patting themselves on the back for conducting the debate on the new leadership in a public session instead of behind closed doors. Whoop-de-doo.

Step back a moment and survey the scene.

Consider the values that shape the political behavior of our elected politicians: their lust for free tickets; their longtime blatant use of earmarks to funnel public money to favored groups, only recently ended; their creation of “constituent services” slush funds to curry favor with voters; their politicization of the awarding of lucrative city contracts; their greedy acceptance of campaign contributions from donors who wittingly evade legal contribution limits. Those are among the things that our politicians hold dear. They reflect a D.C. political culture that embraces “getting over” on the government and taxpayers.

When Phil Mendelson took up the gavel after his selection as interim council chairman, he said, “Right now, the symbol that is this council is tarnished.” Say it again, Phil.

How to undo what’s been done?

Politicians must adopt and adhere to a higher standard of behavior. It is not enough to proclaim, as so many in the Wilson building are wont to do when confronted with their behavior, that, “There has never been the suggestion or allegation of the commission of a crime or the presence of any illegal financial interest on my part.”

Lack of explicitly criminal behavior should not be the only standard. What about honesty, doing the right thing, being trustworthy, dealing fairly with others? Those are necessary traits in elected leaders. How many of our elected officials measure up in that regard?

Those questions go to the heart of the ethics in the council workplace, to the ways in which council members respond to situations involving each other and the way their staffers and others in government may behave as well.

Enter former council member and soon-to-be federal inmate Harry Thomas Jr.

Thomas, who held his Ward 5 seat for five years, told the judge at the time of his sentencing, “Somehow . . . I lost my moral compass. I went astray and lost my way.” It wasn’t done in secret.

How many people in and around the Wilson building knew or had reason to suspect that Thomas was abusing his position of public trust? How many, if any, had reason to know or suspect that he was stealing from the people who elected him?

It fell to a political opponent, the editorial pages of The Post and, ultimately, federal prosecution to get at the graft that brought Thomas down. Meanwhile, those in the best position to know what Thomas was doing — and failing to do — said nothing.

Maybe that’s because they were too busy carrying on like pigeons in the park.

kingc@washpost.com