Police Thyself, D.C. Council

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, July 9, 2009

In one respect, Marion Barry has just become one of my personal heroes. What can I do so when I'm 73, women three decades younger still go for me?

Part of the answer, it seems, is to arrange to get them $5,000-a-month, taxpayer-funded contracts for "poverty reduction" work. That's what D.C. Council member Barry (D-Ward 8) did for his then-girlfriend Donna Watts-Brighthaupt. It remains to be seen whether anybody's poverty was reduced besides Watts-Brighthaupt's.

Until my Post colleague Tim Craig revealed the existence of the contract Tuesday, the latest episode in the Barry soap opera seemed likely to have little effect. Signs were that it would just provide a few days of titillating comic relief for a city still recovering from the tragedies of the Red Line crash and Holocaust Memorial Museum shooting.

It's been hard to take seriously the allegation that Barry was stalking Watts-Brighthaupt at Anacostia Park on Saturday. She had lunch with him earlier that day, and accounts of how he came to be arrested were contradictory. Sure enough, authorities said yesterday that they were dropping the charge.

But now that it's come to light that D.C. Council funds were put to questionable use, it's become a good government issue that needs a thorough investigation. The District's handling of this will help signal whether it wants to keep moving away from a political culture too tolerant of cronyism and self-dealing.

Happily, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's office made clear it's prepared to mount an inquiry if the D.C. Council won't police itself. In strongly worded comments evidently designed to pressure the council to take the lead, D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said the city's reputation was at stake.

"It does not do the city any good, in the eyes of the public and in the eyes of Congress, to have this kind of fiasco," Nickles said.

Any investigation should focus on whether the public trust has been violated and how to tighten rules and oversight to keep elected officials from using public funds to improperly favor personal acquaintances. The council appears divided on how to proceed. A spokeswoman for Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said the council lacks authority to probe a member, but council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said an accounting is needed.

Watts-Brighthaupt has received $15,000 under the contract, potentially worth $60,000. It's a puny amount, especially given that the District faces a $340 million deficit over the next two years, but the principle is important.

Although the city has made progress toward clean government in recent years, starting with the administration of Anthony Williams, District leaders have had a blind spot when it comes to some of Barry's activities. They've been mostly quiet about his chronic tax problems, for which he's still on probation and could go to jail.

The reasons for such caution are well-known. It's politically dangerous to take on Barry, partly because of racial sensitivities and, for all his failings, Barry is a stalwart, effective representative of the city's disadvantaged. Their continuing support of him is a way to stick it to the establishment. It's hard in a liberal city such as Washington to go aggressively after such a politician, especially one in poor health who has become an icon.

(Although they represent very different constituencies, Barry's role as a populist standard-bearer is similar to that of another maverick politician in the news -- Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R). They both champion groups that feel disenfranchised and relish backing controversial figures who annoy those in charge.)

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