Dubious Earmarks and the Case for Investigating Marion Barry

Thursday, July 16, 2009

FIRST CAME the revelation that D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) put his girlfriend on the city payroll. Now come new -- and even more troubling -- allegations that Mr. Barry steered nearly $1 million of public money to organizations that are questionable in their origin and purpose. The D.C. Council's decision to authorize a broad inquiry into these affairs is a good first step. But the seriousness of the charges and the fact that the council's own lax oversight is implicated demand separate investigations by the D.C. inspector general and the U.S. attorney's office.

Less than a week after the disclosure that Mr. Barry directed $15,000 to a then-girlfriend, the Washington City Paper reported on Mr. Barry's use of legislative earmarks to fund six nonprofit groups in Ward 8 that apparently are controlled by his staff. Reporter Mike DeBonis showed how Mr. Barry secured funding for the groups even before they officially existed and detailed apparent irregularities, including allegations of forgery and false statements, in how some were constituted. Each received grants of $75,000 this year and are set to get more money next year. It's unclear what the groups did for the money.

The council last year established new rules limiting earmarks and requiring recipients to submit extensive documentation and to undergo audits. That the rules fall short seems clear from a taped account -- the person responsible says the recording was accidental -- of a March meeting in which members of the council staff can be heard fretting when confronted with Mr. Barry's unusual involvement in the operations of the nonprofits. Says Council Budget Director Eric Goulet: "We've moved beyond the ideal of how this should work. I'm glad this is not on tape right now . . . but the council member should not be directly making decisions about these grant agreements."

The events surrounding Mr. Barry illuminate concerns about how expenditures near and dear to council members are policed. Separate from funds that are earmarked as part of the legislative process, the council has an operating budget of some $20 million. It appears -- as witnessed by Mr. Barry's shameless boast that he broke no rules in hiring a girlfriend and would do so again -- that members are given wide latitude to do what they want.

Accordingly, it was encouraging that D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) agreed to expand the scope of the investigation by noted lawyer Robert S. Bennett to cover the council's use of personal services contracts and earmarks and whether there is a need to toughen council rules. However, more than ethical issues are in play; that's why authorities empowered to conduct criminal investigations must also take a look at Mr. Barry's actions.

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