By Tim Craig and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 11, 2009; B04
D.C. Council members announced yesterday that Robert S. Bennett, a Washington lawyer best known for defending former President Bill Clinton against sexual harassment charges, will oversee an investigation into whether member Marion Barry violated any laws or ethics policies by giving a city contract to a woman with whom he was romantically involved.
The announcement, made at a news conference, capped a day of tension among council members that included a closed meeting in which Barry (D-Ward 8) started to cry as he apologized for the controversy, council members said.
Despite the apology, some council members stormed out of the news conference when Barry spoke.
"I welcome this inquiry," Barry said. "I have no doubt in my mind that we followed all the proper procedures."
Bennett, who attended the news conference, said he will work pro bono. He is a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. "I love the District, and I think it's an important issue," Bennett said, "and I'm honored" to lead the investigation.
A $5,000-a-month contract awarded to Donna Watts-Brighthaupt came to light after Barry was arrested last Saturday by U.S. Park Police on a misdemeanor charge of stalking. The charge was dropped.
The inquiry is thought to be the first independent investigation that the council has authorized of one of its members, said Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D).
Council members said they will not censure Barry or push for his resignation until the investigation is complete. Although the council generally turns to the city auditor to conduct investigations, Gray said he thought the inquiry should be independent.
D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles, who also could have investigated, said he will step aside for Bennett. "I have great confidence in Bennett and feel this is the right way to go," he said.
Bennett, a former federal prosecutor who represented Clinton in a sexual harassment suit brought by Paula Jones, will also examine whether the council needs to implement new ethics policies or change its contracting procedures.
Gray said the council will probably give Bennett subpoena power to conduct his investigation. If wrongdoing is found, Gray said, the council will take appropriate action, including referring the findings to other agencies.
"I would like to see justice done in this incident," Gray said. "We are conducting our own investigation, and we will do a thorough job."
The decision to bring in an outside investigator comes amid growing public pressure for the council to reexamine its ethics policy.
Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, said the Barry controversy exposes the city's weak laws and policies on ethics and hurts the District's image.
"Incidents like you have now cause rural congressmen from the West and Midwest to shake their heads and say, 'The people of D.C. can't have self-rule,' " Edgar said, referring to the city's quest for voting rights in Congress. "It is important for . . . council members to not only investigate the former mayor but also use this as a tipping point on ethics."
In defending the contract, Barry said Watts-Brighthaupt worked and met the terms of her agreement. He also said that it is not illegal for council members to hire someone with whom they have a romantic relationship. City officials said there are also no prohibitions against council members hiring relatives as long as they are qualified.
"There is no connection between our personal relationship and our business relationship. I didn't supervise her," Barry said. "You will find that the work product was more than adequate to meet the $15,000 that she was paid."
On Tuesday, a Barry spokeswoman said the contract was initially valued at $60,000, but Gray said yesterday that he was only aware of a figure of $20,000.
Before the news conference, at least 10 council members locked themselves in Gray's office to decide how they would respond. Journalists were barred from entering, and several protested, including some from The Washington Post. Security officers were called to remove them.
In Gray's office, Barry apologized for embarrassing the legislative body, said council members who spoke on condition of anonymity. His lip began to quiver, and he began to sob, they said.
"It was a poignant moment," one member said.
But Barry's demeanor enraged some of his colleagues. When Gray allowed Barry to speak at the news conference and he began his remarks by criticizing the Park Police, members David A. Catania (I-At Large) and Mary M. Cheh (Ward 3) walked out.
Catania said he left because "to have stayed may have given the false impression that council members, including myself, are rallying to Barry's side. . . . This is not the case."