June 14, 2013

This much is clear: Former D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown is an unabashed Willie Sutton devotee. In his brief and mediocre political career, he went where the money was.

Brown coveted the chairmanship of the committee on economic development, which would position him to lord over lucrative development deals and put business owners at his mercy. Most important, it would mean access to money — other people’s money to fund his political campaigns and finance his extravagant lifestyle. So, when then-council Chairman Kwame Brown, as a last act before resigning in disgrace, appointed his good buddy to the job, it was a dream realized.

Truth be told, the economic development committee had become hustlers haven.

Kwame Brown was chair of the panel when he took in thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from developers that went unreported. Harry Thomas Jr. succeeded him but ultimately was forced to resign from office. Michael Brown took over and immediately began following the established pay-to-play book.

The trio was enabled by a legislature with far too many members for whom ethics is a foreign, untranslatable term.

Unsurprisingly, Brown got caught during an FBI undercover operation taking bribes totaling $55,000. He pleaded guilty this week to a federal felony.

“We did not target Michael Brown. Michael Brown targeted himself,” U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said at a news conference. “[Brown] made the audacious choice to sell the public’s trust for cold, hard cash.”

That sound you hear is Brown’s father screaming from his grave.

A former Democratic National Committee chairman and commerce secretary during President Bill Clinton’s administration, Ronald H. Brown was no saint. But he was never accused of taking money from people he claimed he wanted to help.

Thomas’s father also must have rolled over in his coffin when his son pleaded guilty to orchestrating a kickback scheme involving more than $350,000 of public money meant for disadvantaged youth.

We are in a season of falling sons. Who will be next to dishonor a father’s legacy, break an aging mother’s heart and assault the public’s trust?

Confession: I was never a Brown fan. Coming from Louisiana, my crooked-politician-barometer is well tuned. While on the council, Brown engaged in backroom deals, hoping to bring Internet gambling to the District. He committed campaign violations in 2007. In 2012, he announced the sudden disappearance of $114,000. He claimed his treasurer Hakim J. Sutton stole it.

Raise your hand if you believe that story.

In 1996, I began identifying a class of new black leaders — Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, for example. Their public policy direction and governing style differed sharply from most post-civil-rights-era African Americans politicians.

Unfortunately, the second generation has not only stepped away from the civil rights approach, it has completely abandoned a prime directive of black empowerment: advance a more expansive and humane politics while serving the people. The potential of that cohort has been swallowed mostly by avarice. Former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin and former U.S. representative Jesse Jackson Jr. serve as examples of misdirected promise and indisputable leadership failures. The facts aren’t all in, but the ongoing investigation of D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and his 2010 campaign threatens to add another name to that list.

Last month, some folks criticized President Obama for his speech at the historically black, all-male Morehouse College. His comments, I thought, seemed the advice a father might offer: “Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. Moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too,” he said.

“Keep setting an example for what it means to be a man,” Obama continued. “Be the best husband to your wife . . . or your partner. Be the best father you can be to your children. Because nothing is more important.”

If Brown received similar guidance during his youth, he didn’t listen. Worse, he has seemed unconcerned about how his actions might adversely affect his children — and the children of the District to whom he held himself out as a role model.

The fallen political sons offer a cautionary tale about the corrupting power of greed. It serves as motivation for D.C. residents to become more — not less — involved in their government and more discriminating in selection of their representatives. They must look beyond candidates’ Crest-bright smiles, smooth talk, skin color and genealogy to discover their true character and values.

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com

The is the first of a new weekly column by longtime D.C. reporter and commentator Jonetta Rose Barras. The column will appear every Friday online at washingtonpost.com/opinions.