By Nikita Stewart, Tim Craig and Dagny Salas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 9, 2009; A01
It started with an arrest, as it often does. There was a woman involved, as there usually is. And there were the denials, controversial behavior by the police and extraordinary news conferences that feed a local media obsessed with Marion Barry. Within his inner circle, there were the normal efforts to get Barry to back off. As always, he largely ignored the advice.
The initial reaction from outside Barry's world was just as routine: near silence from his fellow D.C. Council members and unwavering support from his constituents, even though to much of Washington Barry long ago ceased being a power player.
The drama could have ended yesterday evening when authorities announced that they were dropping the stalking charges that again put Barry's personal life on display. For his backers, this was evidence that the former mayor is as much a victim of overzealous police as he is a man who seems to court trouble. But there's the likelihood of an investigation into his then-girlfriend getting a $60,000 council contract from Barry (D-Ward 8), which means the sideshow spectacle could continue.
At a 9 p.m. news conference, Natalie Williams, Barry's spokeswoman, said Barry was "thankful" that the U.S. attorney's office decided not to prosecute.
"The short answer is, this is over," she said later.
However, there were calls for an investigation into Barry's use of public funds. His friends and supporters said they are worried about the job given to Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, the woman who police say accused Barry of following her, leading to his arrest Saturday. Records indicate that the payments and cancellations of the contract coincide with their makeups and breakups. So far, Watts-Brighthaupt has been paid $15,000, and at Barry's request, the secretary of the council has approved an additional payment of $5,000.
"Everybody's better off walking away from [the stalking charge], but he has a raft of other challenges he has to deal with," said Frederick D. Cooke Jr., Barry's attorney, referring to the contract.
Last night, council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) urged a probe into the contracts, though it is unclear whether council members can investigate a colleague.
"These are public funds," Catania said. "There needs to be an accounting."
D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said that he will investigate if the council doesn't. "My strong preference would be to have the council look into it," he said. "After all, it's money allocated to the council. If the council chooses not to look into it, then I certainly would."
Williams said last night that Barry will provide a fuller accounting today of the work performed by Watts-Brighthaupt.
Barry's former campaign manager, Joe Louis Ruffin Jr., also questioned yesterday why Watts-Brighthaupt was paid $500 in campaign funds a week after receiving the city contract. "She didn't do any real work for the campaign," Ruffin said.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said she was exasperated by Barry's actions.
"We have too many urgent issues . . . to be continually distracted this way," she said. "Someone needs to talk him, like an intervention."
She said she continues to believe that Barry is an effective council member.
According to U.S. Park Police, Barry, 73, was arrested and charged after Watts-Brighthaupt, 40, flagged down an officer in Anacostia Park and complained that Barry was "bothering" her. It was a murky incident, further complicated when it was revealed that the two had planned a trip to Rehoboth Beach, Del., but canceled and returned to the District after an argument.
Barry was upset that their lovers' spat turned into an arrest. He wanted to address the public in a news conference. Friends had to talk him out of it, and in a compromise, Williams read his statements.
But Barry's insistence on publicly commenting on his relationship with Watts-Brighthaupt has continued all week. After The Washington Post published a story that revealed the contract for Watts-Brighthaupt to develop "poverty reduction strategies," Barry called an 11 p.m. news conference that news stations ran live even though Barry didn't appear. Williams read a statement that called the contract "legal" and Watts-Brighthaupt "unstable." The unusual event grew wilder when Watts-Brighthaupt showed up and disrupted it.
In dropping charges yesterday, prosecutors said in a statement: "Following a review of the evidence relating to stalking allegations against Marion Barry and a careful analysis of the relevant factors, including the elements of the offense and the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia has decided not to pursue stalking charges in this matter."
But Andre Johnson, Barry's former spokesman, said he does not expect Barry to let up. "He's so emphatic about getting his point across," Johnson said. "He's probably the greatest political and media strategist I've ever met."
This time, however, Barry is up against Watts-Brighthaupt and her ex-husband, Delonta Brighthaupt, who appear unwilling to let Barry have the spotlight to himself.
Yesterday, Washington City Paper published voice mails between Barry and Watts-Brighthaupt that detailed their sexual relationship and continuous arguments. They were provided by Brighthaupt, according to City Paper.
Barry fought back: "Any consensual, sexual relationship that Mr. Barry and Ms. Watts had is a personal and private matter between two adults," Williams said in a statement. "The content of these tapes have absolutely nothing to do with the arrest of Mr. Barry on July 4th and under no circumstances incriminates Mr. Barry of any crime. Instead, the release of the tapes does nothing more than show the true mindset and character of his accuser."
Behind the scenes, some council members were stepping up the pressure on council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) to intervene with Barry, although they remained hesitant to speak publicly.
"It's one thing not paying your taxes and having some goofy traffic violation, but you start misusing public funds and that is a whole different thing," one council member said.
Gray released a statement last night that did not address Barry's situation but recounted the steps he's taken to tighten ethics policies in recent years.
In February, a group of Ward 8 residents lobbied council members to remove Barry from office and federal prosecutors asked a judge to send the former mayor to jail for violating his probation after he failed to file his taxes in a timely manner.
Many of them are young black professionals who have moved into Ward 8 in the past few years. They backed newcomer Charles Wilson, a 32-year-old consultant, who was trounced in the Democratic primary in September, in which Barry received 78 percent of the vote.
"It's disappointing news like this is always coming out, and it gives off a negative perception of who we are," Wilson said.
"Marion Barry today reminds me of a marriage that started 20 years ago," said Nikki Peele, 32, who moved to Congress Heights about two years ago and muses daily on her blog, the Advoc8te. "He was charming. He was wonderful. He brought you flowers every day. Many, many years pass, and he doesn't bring you flowers anymore. . . . You keep holding on because you remember when."
In Ward 8, most residents share an admiration for Barry, a civil rights leader who later became a school board member, council member and mayor. As leader of the nation's capital, he is credited with helping to build the black middle class and reaching out to low-income African Americans who felt disenfranchised. He built loyalty with the Summer Youth Employment Program, which gave thousands of youths jobs in difficult economic times. After his conviction on a 1990 charge for cocaine possession, Barry spent six months in prison, only to stage a comeback to the council and then be elected mayor again in 1994.
"Here, we are always going to love Marion Barry. He is Ward 8. He did a lot of good work," said Barbara Barnes, 35, adding that he has "been the best person to us."
"This bird done a lot for the city, got me my first summer job," said Howard Greenfield, 56. "A lot of people don't know what he did in this city. Nobody else was doing it."
Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) predicted that Barry will again emerge from controversy relatively unscathed politically. She said she can't wait to see the movie "The Nine Lives of Marion Barry," set to be shown next month on HBO.
"That describes it best," Alexander said. "The nine lives of Marion Barry, except I think he has maybe 11 lives."
Staff writers Keith L. Alexander, DeNeen L. Brown, Hamil R. Harris and Robert McCartney contributed to this report.