August 16, 2013

“The Department of Human Services has a well-established record of giving lip service but rotten care to the city’s poor. [Vernon] Hawkins has been an integral part of that sorry history. Neglected children in foster care in the 1980s? He was there.. . . Inadequate mental health care? He was there. Continuous overspending, a foul and disgusting morgue, a Receiving Home for Children judged by the court to be ‘appalling and unfit to house animals of a lower level,’ overnight shelters that turn mothers with frail, cold and sick infants into the streets, questionable contracting and financial dealings at Human Services? Vernon Hawkins has been there.”

That assessment of Vernon Hawkins’s stewardship of a major city agency was expressed in a June 4, 1996, Post editorial, “To War over Vernon Hawkins?” It was among several editorials that I wrote in the 1990s about Hawkins, who was at that time the abjectly loyal but totally inept human services director under then-Mayor Marion Barry.

Forced out of office by the Financial Control Board in 1996, Hawkins went on to become the eminence grise of D.C. Democratic politics, operating behind the scenes as an adviser to high-profile political candidates.

That helped make him what he is today: a confessed felon.

Tuesday, Hawkins pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to lying to federal agents investigating corruption in the 2010 mayoral campaign.

As is his wont, Hawkins resorted to euphemisms to explain his offensive and unlawful behavior.

In a statement released after the hearing, Hawkins said it was “my mistake in not being fully transparent.” That’s how he described making statements to the FBI that he knew at the time to be false and misleading.

Asked in court by Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly if he paid someone sought by the FBI to leave town, Hawkins, according to NBC News4’s Tom Sherwood, said “I did make that mistake.”

There’s that word again.

When an error occurs by accident, it’s called a mistake. Use incorrect grammar or the wrong word, that’s a mistake. Misunderstand the meaning of something, confuse one thing with another, judge character wrongly — these are mistakes.

What does Hawkins consider a mistake?

When he learned that the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI were investigating allegations concerning Vincent Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign, and that folks from the campaign were being contacted by the authorities, Hawkins met with Eugenia “Jeanne” Clarke Harris. She’s a Gray supporter who pleaded guilty last year to making unreported payments in an off-the-books scheme to help finance Gray’s campaign.

In late 2011, Hawkins and Harris discussed the need for some campaign folks to be out of town to delay meeting with the feds.

Call that an accident?

When Hawkins and Harris met with one campaign worker whom they tried to persuade to leave town for an extended period to avoid federal agents, did Hawkins misunderstand the meaning of what he was doing?

How about when, upon learning that the worker would lose needed income while away, Hawkins gave the worker an envelope that he understood contained $4,000 in cash to cover lost income and expenses for the time that the worker was away?

Or how about when Hawkins, discovering that the worker was back in town and needed additional funds, arranged for another $4,000 to enable the worker to leave town again?

That, too, was a “mistake”?

Now I ask you, could Vernon Hawkins have confused one thing with another? Is it possible that Hawkins had no idea that he was helping to obstruct justice? Did he, perhaps out of innocence, wrongly judge the “shadow campaign” that was being funded on Gray’s behalf?

Was the whole thing, well, just one big mistake that a naive Vernon Hawkins failed to fully recognize at the time?

What about lying to the FBI? What about telling the feds he didn’t know about anyone being asked to get out of town, that he never asked anyone to leave town to avoid federal authorities, and that he didn’t help anyone leave town so they wouldn’t be able to speak with federal agents?

In a statement of the offense filed with the court, Hawkins acknowledged his efforts to obstruct the federal investigation and the false statements he made to the FBI. Hawkins says it was a mistake.

Can a mouse build a house?

U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. wrote: “Hawkins engaged in the conduct . . . knowingly and willfully and not because of accident, mistake, or other innocent reasons.”

That’s the Vernon Hawkins whom I got to know nearly 20 years ago.

He knows where the bodies are buried.

There are only a few questions worth asking: Whether Hawkins is going to prison and for how long; and whether his signed agreement to cooperate with the government, which may include “answering questions, providing sworn written statements, taking government administered polygraph examination(s); and participating in covert law enforcement activities” and grand jury appearances, will lead to criminal or civil proceedings against any high-ranking D.C. government officials.

If so, to whom?

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.