September 18, 2013

THE REPUTATION at stake in the D.C. Council’s decision Tuesday to censure member Marion Barry (D) was not that of the Ward 8 representative but rather that of the city’s legislative body. Mr. Barry long ago established his unsavory credentials, so the only issue was whether his colleagues would give him a pass or take action against his unethical behavior.

Thankfully, nine members had the moral good sense to formally rebuke Mr. Barry, stripping him of a coveted committee chairmanship, for taking thousands of dollars in cash from contractors doing business with the city. Alas, three council members — Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) — chose to stick by Mr. Barry in a dispiriting debate that showed work remains in raising the bar on D.C. government ethics. The votes by Mr. Graham and Mr. Orange came as no surprise, given their own ethical missteps. But we would have hoped someone running for mayor — Mr. Evans — would not be so tone-deaf to principles of good government. He told us “sympathy” for Mr. Barry — not, as some have speculated, hope of getting his support — motivated his decision.

The censure is Mr. Barry’s second such rebuke in three years; he was sanctioned in 2010 for giving a council contract to a girlfriend and directing the money to nonprofit groups under his control. His “recidivism” was a factor cited by the council’s disciplinary panel in pushing for censure and loss of his committee chairmanship. Mr. Barry — who as mayor was convicted of cocaine possession — had been fined $13,600 by the ethics board for his acceptance of the illegal gifts, and his defenders on the council said that should be sufficient punishment. Imagine if it had been a D.C. government worker with a spotty work history who had taken money from a prohibited source; would Mr. Evans or Mr. Orange or Mr. Graham think a nominal fine — followed by business as usual — sufficient?

Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who headed the panel that recommended action against Mr. Barry, gave powerful voice to the council’s need to set its own standard of behavior, as well as consequences for rules broken. No doubt for Mr. McDuffie, as well as for others who serve with the ever-popular Mr. Barry, the vote was personally, if not politically, difficult. That makes Tuesday’s decision all the more noteworthy.