By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 8, 2009; B01
D.C. Council member Marion Barry hired his then-girlfriend as a city contractor two months after they began a relationship that eventually led to Barry's arrest on stalking charges, according to city records.
Barry (D-Ward 8) notified the council secretary's office in October that his office intended to hire Donna Watts-Brighthaupt as a contractor specializing in "poverty reduction strategies," according to the records reviewed by The Washington Post.
Watts-Brighthaupt has been paid $15,000, and the secretary's office has a purchase order authorizing payment of an additional $5,000, council officials said.
The money comes from Barry's taxpayer-funded budget as a council member, and some officials wonder whether it was ethical for the former mayor to put his girlfriend on the city payroll.
Last night, Barry's spokeswoman, Natalie Williams, called a highly unusual 11 p.m. news conference at the John A. Wilson Building to respond to a Washington Post story after it appeared on http://washingtonpost.com.
Williams acknowledged that Barry gave Watts-Brighthaupt the contract.
"The contract was awarded to Ms. Watts because she met the criteria for the job and the qualifications for the job," Williams said.
Barry also gave her the contract, Williams said, because the financially strapped Watts-Brighthaupt "was about to lose her house, her car, due to her inability to find employment."
Barry's representatives have tried to cast Watts-Brighthaupt as unstable and attempted to further that case at last night's news conference.
Then a woman who identified herself as Watts-Brighthaupt came running from behind a TV news truck.
"That's not true. I am Ms. Watts," she said. She then returned to her car, with news cameras in pursuit.
According to the District's conflict of interest laws, no public official should use an "official position or public office to obtain private financial gain for the public official or any member of their household, or any business with which the public official or any member of their household is associated."
Members of the household are defined in the statute as spouses, parents, brothers and sisters and children, as well as their spouses. The law does not appear to address girlfriends.
"The issue becomes whether [Barry's] relationship would fall into any of those categories," said Cecily E. Collier-Montgomery, director of the Office of Campaign Finance. She declined to comment further because her office could be asked to investigate Barry's hiring of Watts-Brighthaupt.
When told about the Barry situation, Attorney General Peter J. Nickles said it was "something I would look into."
Earlier yesterday, Barry's attorney, Frederick D. Cooke Jr., declined to comment. Reached last night before the news conference, Watts-Brighthaupt said: "I am competent and educated. No further comment."
According to the contract proposal Barry submitted Oct. 22, Watts-Brighthaupt was to be paid $2,500 every two weeks to assist Barry in "the conceptualization, design, planning and moderation of a series of community meetings and forums designed to obtain public input on poverty reduction."
"Ms. Brighthaupt is educationally qualified and has worked on similar projects," Barry wrote.
The initial contract was to run through Dec. 22, but Barry requested on Dec. 5 that it be canceled. No explanation for the cancellation was given. On Feb. 20, Barry sent another letter asking that the contract be reinstated.
On May 22, Barry sent Cynthia Brock-Smith, the secretary of the council, an invoice asking that she "expedite" a $6,250 payment to Watts-Brighthaupt for consulting services performed in early February. "Hopefully, Ms. Brighthaupt can get it tomorrow," Barry wrote.
Watts-Brighthaupt, 40, has been engaged in a nasty public dispute with Barry since Saturday, when U.S. Park Police charged Barry with misdemeanor stalking after he allegedly followed Watts-Brighthaupt, each of them in a different car, into Anacostia Park.
Cooke called the charge "baseless" and predicted that it will be dismissed by the U.S. attorney's office. Watts-Brighthaupt has said that she didn't want Barry to be arrested but that she is cooperating with investigators.
Hours before the arrest, Barry and Watts-Brighthaupt set off for an overnight trip to Rehoboth Beach, Del. But they got into an argument over lunch in Annapolis and returned to the District a few hours later.
Barry and Watts-Brighthaupt have said that they began dating at the Democratic National Convention in August. At the time, Watts-Brighthaupt was working as a political consultant for Barry's reelection campaign. They broke up in February, but they said they continued to see each other.
The money for Watts-Brighthaupt's contract came from a fund available to each council member to hire staff. Barry has an annual salary budget of about $307,000 to hire staff members for his office, according to council officials.
Barry is also the chairman of the Committee on Housing and Workforce Development, which gives him access to an additional $380,000 a year to hire committee staff.
Council members generally have the freedom to hire whomever they want.
"It's not always apparent what the relationship is between persons or the precise nature of the relationship," said Brian K. Flowers, general counsel for the council.
Staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.