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.)

Still, Fenty and the council should be able to find a way to let Barry agitate for his causes while reining in his excesses. The contract for Watts-Brighthaupt provides a good opportunity to crack down, because there are significant questions about at least four aspects of it.

-- Purpose of contract. Barry and spokeswoman Natalie Williams have acknowledged that the contract wasn't given just to develop anti-poverty strategies, a valid public goal, but also to do a good turn for Watts-Brighthaupt. She was about to lose her house and car, and Barry was concerned about her children, Williams said.

-- Timing. It can't be a coincidence that Barry discovered that Watts-Brighthaupt was the perfect candidate to undertake vital anti-poverty work two months after they started dating.

-- Value of work provided. Investigators will have to look at what work Watts-Brighthaupt did to earn the money. Based on the documents available so far, it included designing a brochure and application for an anti-poverty program, mailing 500 letters to potential participants, arranging for the Rev. Willie Wilson's Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast to serve as one forum, and reading some self-help books, including Stephen R. Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People."

-- Qualifications. Barry said Watts-Brighthaupt is "educationally qualified and has worked on similar projects," but details haven't yet been made available. Moreover, in seeking to discredit the stalking charges, Williams said Watts-Brighthaupt is psychologically "unstable." Did that alleged trait not raise concern with Barry about Watts-Brighthaupt's professional capabilities?

The matter also raises an intriguing question about what constitutes a conflict of interest. District law makes it hard for public officials to provide private financial gain for spouses, parents, siblings and children, and their spouses. But it doesn't say anything about girlfriends or boyfriends.

So the lesson appears to be that if you want to bend the rules, do it for your mistress rather than your wife.

Worrisome Precedent

Metro has said the operator of the ill-fated rear train was not at fault in the recent Red Line crash. Now we learn that earlier in the month, a passenger's cellphone camera caught an operator looking into his lap and sending text messages while underway. The operator got only a one-week suspension. Metro should have done more to make an example for its employees and the public.

I'll discuss local issues tomorrow at 8:51 a.m. on WAMU 88.5 FM. robertmccartney@washpost.com

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company