By Tim Craig, Nikita Stewart and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 10, 2009
D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray will enlist an independent law firm to investigate the $60,000 contract that council member Marion Barry awarded to his then-girlfriend, sources said.
The probe, which Gray will formally announce today, comes amid mounting pressure for city leaders to respond to Barry's use of tax dollars to hire Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, the woman at the center of his July 4 arrest on a misdemeanor stalking charge that was later dropped.
In an interview yesterday with The Washington Post, Watts-Brighthaupt raised further questions about the contract when she said she was hired to study Barry's political life. That would appear to contradict the terms of the contract, which said she would consult on "poverty reduction strategies."
Yesterday, in his first remarks since the arrest, Barry, 73, refused to comment on the $5,000-a-month contract. Instead, he blasted the U.S. Park Police, saying they inappropriately arrested him.
"They have caused great pain to my family, this community and the nation," Barry (D-Ward 8) said at a news conference in front of the John A. Wilson Building. "This has led to embarrassment all around the nation, and the buck ought to be put right at the officer who made the arrest."
But the focus is increasingly shifting away from the arrest and toward his use of public funds. Council members plan to meet today to discuss the issue, sources said. They will probably discuss the possibility of censure or stripping Barry of seniority or of his committee chairmanship, council members said.
Barry hired Watts-Brighthaupt, 40, as a contractor in his office in October, two months after she said they began dating.
According to the initial contract Barry submitted to the secretary of the council, Watts-Brighthaupt was supposed to focus on poverty issues "with a particular focus on affordable housing, supportive services, special needs populations and government income support programs."
Watts-Brighthaupt said she was actually tasked with boosting civic participation. She said the project, "Emerging Leaders of Ward 8," studied Barry's political techniques to create a program to develop young leaders.
"I wanted to know how Marion Barry kept getting reelected and how people choose to vote," Watts-Brighthaupt said. "I learned quite a bit about Marion I am going to take . . . away from this."
Watts-Brighthaupt provided a draft of a brochure for the "Emerging Leaders of Ward 8" program. According to the brochure, the leadership program would train Ward 8 residents, ages 18 to 40, on everything from how D.C. government works to public speaking.
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.
Council members get about $350,000 annually to staff their offices. Committee chairmen receive about $350,000 more to staff their committee offices. Barry chairs the Committee on Housing and Workforce Development.
Council officials say it's up to individual members to police whether the work done by contractors or employees matches their salaries. And there are no prohibitions against council members putting family members or boyfriends or girlfriends on the payroll if they are qualified for a job, city officials said. But the District's conflict of interest laws say no public official should use an "official position or public office to obtain financial gain for the public official or any member of their household." The law does not appear to address girlfriends or boyfriends.
Gray declined to comment on his decision to hire an outside investigator. But he said he will be pushing to tighten the ethics policies and flesh out the details of Barry's contract with Watts-Brighthaupt.
"The idea is to create a code of conduct," Gray said. "I think what is needed is to look at the whole picture."
There could be other investigations. Attorney General Peter Nickles has said he might look into the matter.
Council members are increasingly concerned that Barry's behavior reflects poorly on all of them. A council source said Gray's office barred Barry from holding his news conferences about his arrest inside or on the steps of the Wilson Building, forcing him to use the public sidewalk.
But council members have stopped short of calling for Barry's resignation.
"The first question is, has council member Marion Barry broken any laws?" asked Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). "So in terms of do I think he should resign because of any drama, we need to look over the last 20 to 30 years, and there has been a lot of drama around council member Barry over the last 20 to 30 years, but I don't believe anyone has concluded he's broken any laws."
Several community leaders say the timing of the "Emerging Leaders of Ward 8" overseen by Watts-Brighthaupt was peculiar.
In November, a small group of young professionals established "River East Emerging Leaders" to address issues in their communities east of the Anacostia River. One of the leaders of that group was Charles Wilson, who ran against Barry in last year's primary.
"About fifteen of us asked, 'How can we be a transformative force in our neck of the woods?' " said Troy Donté Prestwood.
After the arrest, Barry advisers accused Watts-Brighthaupt of being unstable. Yesterday, however, Barry refused to talk about her, lashing out instead at the Park Police. He said they took too long to give him access to an attorney once he was arrested.
"The facts are, [the arresting officer] did it inappropriately, and that has caused great pain in this community," Barry said. Park Police officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Although Barry would not answer questions about the contract he gave Watts-Brighthaupt, he did clear up one lingering question. Asked if his relationship with her is over for good, Barry said: "My mother told me, 'Never say never,' but, yes, it's over."