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An Example Waiting to Be Made

D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), all smiles after a tax-related court appearance in 2007.
D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), all smiles after a tax-related court appearance in 2007. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By Raw Fisher: From Marc Fisher's Blog
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Should Marion Barry go to jail for failing -- yet again -- to file his tax returns?

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His last stint in the clink didn't seem to have much of an impact on the former mayor. As recently as 2005, he tested positive for marijuana and cocaine use. And in 2002, U.S. Park Police said they found crack cocaine and pot in Barry's Jaguar.

Should Barry be jailed for doing yet again exactly what got him placed on probation in 2006? That time, after he failed to file federal and D.C. income tax returns from 1999 to 2004, a federal judge let him off. The Ward 8 D.C. Council member walked out of the courthouse smiling and laughing.

As is his wont, Binary Man sees only two options here: jail or permission from the judge for Barry to continue thumbing his nose at the system. Fining Barry wouldn't make sense; he has little in the way of assets, and he has proved throughout his career that he is not driven by any desire to get rich. Even as people around him were ransacking the public treasury during his many years in power, Barry has always led a modest, even bare-bones, lifestyle.

Is it necessary and important to jail Barry to maintain or restore credibility to the government's efforts to make everyone pay taxes? Should Barry be treated the same as you or I would be in the same situation, or should he get the Tom Daschle-Timothy Geithner special treatment?

Barry, of course, is already trying to muddy the waters. In a friendly interview with Channel 9's Bruce Johnson, Barry reveals that he didn't file his tax returns because "I was just distracted" -- a standard Barry line, but with a new twist: "I'm getting ready to get a kidney transplant." Turns out the former mayor is undergoing dialysis -- three days a week, four hours a day, he says -- and has identified a donor for a transplant.

"That's no excuse" for not filing his taxes, he concedes, "but that's the reason."

No one would wish Marion Barry anything but the best of health. It is difficult to imagine politics in Washington without him. But his kidney problems have nothing to do with his consistent failure to do what all citizens must do -- report his income and pay the government what -- if anything -- he owes. True to form, Barry blames the prosecutors who now want him jailed: "I should have known these prosecutors. They're vicious and they'll do anything to try to embarrass me and try to get at me."

Barry was quick to play the Daschle-Geithner card. Let's skip his whining about how "the media was rather kind to" President Obama's Cabinet appointees when it turned out they had been less than honest in reporting their personal income, and focus instead on the disparity between Daschle and Geithner on one hand and Barry on the other.

Daschle -- who in 1998 opined that "tax cheaters cheat us all, and the IRS should enforce our laws to the letter" -- had to cough up about $100,000 to cover taxes on the limo and driver he got from a friendly donor. That's about half of what Barry had to pay after his last bout of tax distraction. Sure, Daschle lost his chance to be a member of the Cabinet and suffered public humiliation, but no prosecutor is asking for jail time for him.

Barry, however, is a repeat offender, someone who seems to believe, even after years of prosecutorial and media attention on this matter, that he need not play by the same rules as the rest of us.

Daschle lived like a king; Barry, like a modest civil servant. Daschle expressed regret for his actions; Barry seems reluctant to concede wrongdoing.

In all of these cases, Binary Man thinks it's in the government's interest to come down hard on scofflaws. If you can't make a bright public example of high officials, you don't have much hope of winning tax compliance from Joe Average. Even if a couple of months in the slammer wouldn't change Barry's ways, even if he is 72 and in shaky health, the feds and the judge ought to see value in holding Barry not to some astronomically high standard of ethical purity, but just to some minimal, basic standard of acceptable behavior.

Embarrassment didn't work, probation didn't work, tough talk didn't work. It's time to send a message, both to Barry and to the broader public. And prosecutors should start a file on those other guys while they're at it. For too long, public corruption hasn't been a strong focus of D.C. prosecutors, so it's good to see them try to get tough on Barry. Now they need to broaden their selection of targets.

Each week on the Raw Fisher blog, Binary Man seeks to settle disputes, solve problems and make life better. Got a quandary for him? E-mail him at binaryman@washpost.com.


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