MAYBE THE federal bribery chargeagainst former D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Ethical issues shadowed Mr. Brown’s career and were the main reason voters wisely refused last year to return him to office. Still, the allegation of his brazen collection of a cash bribe is shocking. And seeing three people who held high elected office in the District charged with federal felonies within a year and a half is just plain depressing.
Mr. Brown, an at-large member of the council until January, intends to plead guilty to a count of bribery of a public official, according to a statement Friday from his attorney. Charging documents by federal prosecutors sketch how, over eight months, Mr. Brown accepted $55,000 in return for helping what he thought was a business seeking contracting opportunities. In reality, representatives of the business were undercover FBI agents. Mr. Brown faces up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, although sentencing guidelines call for less.
The charge, which was filed Friday in a criminal information (a document that can only be filed with a defendant’s consent and typically indicates a plea deal has been reached), contains the barest of details. Hopefully, more information will emerge when Mr. Brown enters his plea, which is set for Monday. Did the government have reason to target Mr. Brown and the certified business enterprise program that aims to help small, local and minority businesses? Whatever happened to the $110,000 that Mr. Brown reported missing from his council reelection campaign fund?
The criminal information puts the scheme as “beginning on or about July 11, 2012.” That is one day after D.C. businesswoman Jeanne Clarke Harris pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations as part of a wide-ranging probe of D.C. government wrongdoing by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. A month earlier, former D.C. Council chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) had resigned as part of a guilty plea to bank fraud charges. A month before that, former council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) was sentenced to three years in prison for stealing $353,000 from city-funded youth programs. Perhaps Michael Brown didn’t think U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. was serious when he said “a culture of self-dealing or self-enrichment” would no longer be tolerated in the District.
In response to the city’s unending scandals, ethics policies have been tightened. A board of ethics was created and has proved diligent in seeking to raise the bar on government conduct. Voters have shown some willingness to hold officials accountable at the polls.
Nonetheless, there is a way to go. The council has dragged its feet on campaign-finance reform and refuses to end the insidious process by which it can meddle in contracting, factors that play a role in the pay-to-play culture targeted by the federal sting of Mr. Brown. This week, council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) disclosed that he accepted thousands of dollars from city contractors to pay for personal expenses. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) has had nothing to say on that subject.
No wonder the U.S. attorney is so busy.