By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 16, 2008
It was a hot and hazy summer evening.
D.C. Council member Marion Barry was in his champagne-colored Mercedes-Benz parked on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in the heart of Ward 8, his district in Southeast Washington. The driver's window was down, he recalled, because he had been talking to an acquaintance on the street. It was 6:45 p.m.
Suddenly, he said, a Metrobus sideswiped his car on the passenger side. He said that he honked his horn to stop the bus but that it kept going. He remembered the route sign on the back of the bus: B2.
About a month later, Barry filed a claim against Metro. Metro tracked down the bus operator, who denied hitting any vehicle. There was also no damage to the Metrobus. Unable to confirm Barry's account, a mid-level Metro manager advised against paying the claim.
But this was not just any claimant. This was Barry, 72, the Democrat known affectionately by his supporters as "Mayor for Life," a former four-term mayor who won election to the D.C. Council in 1992 after serving six months in prison for a misdemeanor drug conviction. For three years, he has served on the Metro board, which sets policy for the agency, the region's largest transit provider.
So when his accident claim was brought to the attention of Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. last year, Catoe decided to make an exception.
"We couldn't prove it one way or the other," Catoe said in a recent interview. "The reality is, he's a member of the board of directors.
"In my judgment, I did not feel that he would have lied about such a small claim," Catoe said. "I believed he was truthful, and I made the decision to pay him."
On Aug. 17, Metro cut Barry a check for $3,227.40, according to Metro records provided to The Washington Post in response to a public information request.
Metro sent the check by courier to Barry's council office. The accompanying letter read that Metro "has been unable to confirm the particulars of your allegation that a Metrobus caused the occurrence and your damages. Nevertheless, in recognition of your public position and your commitment to the public interest, [Metro] has determined that it is appropriate to accept your demand for full settlement."
Barry said he did not request special treatment and is indignant at the suggestion.
"I think it was a valid claim on its face," he said in an interview. Metro is "implying the only reason they paid it is because I'm a board member," he said. "I resent that."
Barry said he didn't report the accident to police because "they don't come to minor accidents."
Barry said the June 18, 2007, incident happened this way: "I was at the curb lane on Martin Luther King Avenue between W [Street] and Chicago [Street]. . . . I had just finished talking to somebody. I was parked. I heard this noise and looked up and see I was hit by the bus. I blew my horn and tried to stop the bus. There was a sign on the bus. It said B2."
There were no witnesses.
According to Metro records, Barry's office first reported the incident by telephone July 19, a month after the accident.
While Metro was investigating, a Barry aide took the 1998 Mercedes-Benz E320 to a repair shop. Georgetown Service Center in Northeast Washington said it would cost $2,234, labor and parts included, to replace the passenger side mirror and door panels.
Barry's office was impatient to have the claim paid, according to a claim adjuster's notes. In a note to Reed Appraisers in Wheaton requesting the required independent appraisal, a Metro claims representative wrote: "PLEASE RUSH!!"
Reed's estimate: $3,227.40. In the end, that's what Metro paid Barry. By then, Georgetown Service Center had already repaired Barry's car for about $1,000 less, according to owner Fred Hassani.
So, given Metro's financial difficulties, would Barry consider returning the $1,000 to Metro?
Barry said he couldn't remember the actual repair cost. An aide handled it, he said. "The case is closed where I'm concerned."
As for his Metro service, Barry, an alternate, has the worst attendance record of the 12 members. In three years, he has attended nine of 165 Metro committee and board meetings, according to board records and interviews. He showed up briefly Thursday for one of two committee meetings after a reporter asked about his attendance. The last meeting he attended before that was seven months ago.
Asked about his attendance, Barry responded: "I'm surprised I've been to that many."
District members receive no fee for their board service. Maryland and Virginia board members receive nominal compensation, with the exception of the alternate representing Prince George's County. Since 2003, Marcell Solomon has held that position. The county has paid him nearly $73,000 so far this year for Metro work and other county service, a county spokesman said.
The District, Maryland and Virginia each appoint two voting and two alternate members. Alternates can't vote during full board meetings, but they have equal votes during committee meetings, where major decisions are made.
The District's stake in Metro is huge. The majority of Metrobus routes and nearly half the Metrorail stations are in Washington. The city provides $203 million a year to Metro's operating budget, 38 percent of the subsidies from jurisdictions served by Metro.
City officials have been flagged about Barry's absences. Council chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), whose office makes appointments to boards and commissions, including Metro, said he would review all appointments after council elections in November.
Barry said he has been present for important meetings, such as when increases in bus fares were being discussed last year. He added that the District is ably represented by its two voting members, council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and city transportation director Emeka C. Moneme.
Besides, Barry said, he wants to focus more on his council duties. "I'm going to ask Mr. Gray in January not to reappoint me," he said. "I've done enough. I don't apologize."