June 11, 2013

HOW FORMER D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown collected cash in exchange for government favors is laid out in sordid detail in court documents : the furtive meetings, the wads of $100 bills hidden in sports paraphernalia, the boasts about pulling strings, the desperate requests for money. What is not detailed, but equally deserving of condemnation, is a system — too long condoned by D.C. officials — that allows politics to influence who gets government contracts and feeds a culture that emboldened Mr. Brown.

Make no mistake: Mr. Brown acted corruptly and nothing excuses how he, as described by U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., put a “for sale sign” on the at-large seat he held until January, making “an audacious choice” to sell the public trust for “cold harsh cash.” But in accepting $55,000 from FBI agents posing as businessmen seeking government contracts, Mr. Brown, who pleaded guilty Monday to felony bribery of a public official, exploited what Mr. Machen rightly called a “broken system” in how public contracts are awarded.

“It’s not cheap to get people on top of the pile . . . that’s how the process works,” read one memorable text from Mr. Brown on Dec. 21, 2012, in the midst of his efforts to help a fictitious company get certification as a local, minority-owned business. Mr. Brown, personally and through his staff, contacted and lobbied agency officials; no one blinked an eye because in the District of Columbia such activity is seen as constituent service. Indeed, consider the recollection, as reported by The Post’s Ann E. Marimow and Mike DeBonis , of the director who headed the office handling the certification that Mr. Brown was seeking: He was just one among several council members seeking help for companies.

Mr. Brown may have been alone in pocketing bribes under the guise of a “loan,” but companies that do business with the District have long complained about having to contribute to the campaigns or constituent-service accounts of elected officials who have a hand in deciding lucrative contracts. Mr. Brown’s willingness to manipulate the system to help out a company that clearly had no claim to local certification calls to mind the questionable way in which the city’s grass-cutting contracts were awarded. The history of the lottery contract, reportedly among the affairs under investigation by the U.S. attorney in a wide-ranging investigation of D.C. government corruption, established the insidious role politics plays in what should be, and in most jurisdictions is, a dispassionate procurement process based on neutral criteria administered by professionals.

Mr. Machen told reporters Monday that problems with the contract system should be addressed. But since legislative solutions are up to lawmakers, that responsibility falls to the same D.C. Council members who have been milking the system. Not surprisingly, the council has been reluctant to support reform. So unless citizens and voters make themselves heard, business as usual in D.C. — and the corruption it has bred — will continue.