By Debbi Wilgoren and Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 10, 2006
A subdued, apologetic D.C. Council member Marion Barry was sentenced yesterday to three years of supervised probation for misdemeanor charges based on his failure to file income tax returns.
The former four-term mayor, who failed a court-ordered drug test after his guilty plea in the fall, must undergo further drug testing as a condition of his probation.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson said Barry also must negotiate a plan to settle his tax debt: Based on preliminary returns, he could owe as much as $246,000 after failing to file federal and D.C. returns for six years.
Barry (D), who turned 70 this week, could be jailed if he violates the terms of his probation. He would find himself back in court, for example, if he again used drugs, failed to cooperate with the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue and the Internal Revenue Service or skipped any drug-treatment sessions that might be ordered by the probation office.
Speaking in his trademark low mumble, Barry apologized profusely to the court, D.C. residents and the nation, saying he was "deeply sorry" for failing to pay taxes and for relapsing into drug use.
Barry told Robinson that he did not pay taxes from 1999 to 2004 -- years in which he was a consultant and, prosecutors said, earned more than $530,000 -- because he was broke.
"I'm the kind of person who spends a lot of time worrying about other people and not taking care of myself financially," he said.
Barry left the mayor's office in January 1999 and was elected to the Ward 8 council seat in November 2004. He is paid $92,520 a year as a council member.
"He regrets making a bad judgment, making a bad choice," defense attorney Frederick D. Cooke Jr. told the judge, speaking in a courtroom that was packed with dozens of curious onlookers and Barry supporters.
"He made it out of weakness, out of a sense of embarrassment that he found himself in a position of being unable to pay his taxes," Cooke said.
Barry spoke at length about his battle with drug and alcohol addiction, which he said dates to January 1990, when he was caught smoking crack cocaine in a federal sting operation at a downtown Washington hotel.
He said that he has completed a treatment program and taken at least 12 subsequent tests since testing positive for marijuana and cocaine use in November and that he has come up clean each time.
"This disease . . . it's tough. It's baffling. It's cunning," Barry said at the hearing, adding that most addicts relapse at some point during their recoveries.
He said he is trying to stay sober by avoiding contact with people who use drugs or alcohol, going to frequent recovery meetings and maintaining a strong belief in God.
Just as he has throughout his political career, Barry cast his struggle in religious terms.
"I am a Christian. I believe in forgiveness," he told Robinson, citing verses in the Book of Matthew in which Jesus tells Peter the importance of forgiveness. "So I ask forgiveness, from this court and from this community. . . . I ask the prayers of this court and of all the citizens."
Later, outside the courthouse, Barry told reporters that he had taken yet another drug test at the probation office just after the sentencing, saying he was confident that it would be negative as well.
"Through it all, I'm going to make it . . . and not let my personal demons conquer me," Barry said.
D.C. political leaders reacted somberly to news of Barry's sentence. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) "is concerned about council member Barry and hopes that his health improves," said spokesman Vince Morris.
Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) said she was "glad that this matter is resolved so that Marion Barry can continue to concentrate on his duties to the citizens of Ward 8."
Barry was supposed to be sentenced last month, but that hearing was postponed because he had not filed paperwork with the court saying what taxes he owed or begun discussing repayment with the relevant authorities.
Yesterday, Assistant U.S. Attorney James W. Cooper said Barry had continued to drag his feet, waiting until Wednesday to contact the IRS about repayment.
"Mr. Barry has been, for lack of a better word, recalcitrant," Cooper said. "He has, through a long public career, not hesitated to impose taxes on hardworking people. . . . It frankly is an insult to those people that this sitting public official has behaved in the manner that he has."
But prosecutors stuck with their pledge, made as part of the plea deal, to take no position on Barry's request for probation. He could have faced 18 months behind bars. Prosecutors explained that Barry had so far fulfilled the letter of the deal, if not the spirit. Cooper simply asked Robinson to "ensure that Mr. Barry is held accountable."
Cooke sought unsupervised probation for his client. Under that arrangement, Barry would not have to check in with a probation officer or submit to ongoing drug treatment, and he would undergo only minimal drug testing.
Cooke said Barry was late in filing the documents was because he could not easily find the money to hire an accountant and was barred, as a public official, from allowing his supporters to pay for such services or provide them free of charge.
"Mr. Barry's lack of vigor was not lack of interest or recalcitrance," Cooke said. "It was the reality of not having money."
Robinson, who had been visibly irritated with Barry when she postponed the sentencing hearing last month, did not reprimand him during yesterday's court proceeding.
She declined to impose a significant fine on Barry, citing the large amount he already owed in taxes and penalties.
After the hearing, Barry said that he was both thankful and grateful and that he believed Robinson "was under a lot of pressure to impose a jail sentence."
Those crowding the courtroom included son Christopher; Barry's companion, Chenille Spencer; his six-member council staff; local pastors; and other supporters.
Just as he had in February, Barry prayed outside the courthouse with his pastor, the Rev. Glen A. Staples of Temple of Praise, before the hearing began.
The Rev. Stephen Young, one of Barry's sponsors in recovery, also attended the hearing.
He said he calls Barry late at night or stops by unannounced in the wee hours of the morning to see whether he is using drugs.
"I may pop up at his house at 1, 2, 3 o'clock," Young said. "That's what you have to do to someone in recovery."