Marion Barry must be held accountable for ethics violations

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"I'M A DIFFERENT kind of council member," Marion Barry said Tuesday. We hope, for the city's sake, that is true. His comment came immediately after Washington attorney Robert S. Bennett had laid out the results of a thorough eight-month investigation that revealed how the Ward 8 council member repeatedly violated ethics laws and breached the public trust. Mr. Barry has been frequently caught but rarely held to account. This time the D.C. Council should follow the recommendations of its special counsel by repudiating Mr. Barry, stripping him of committee assignments and referring the matter for possible criminal prosecutions.

"His conduct not only appeared to be improper, but was improper," Mr. Bennett said Tuesday as he detailed how Mr. Barry funneled public money to friends and associates, including a former girlfriend. The noted attorney was recruited by Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) to examine Mr. Barry's conduct following allegations last summer that he put a former girlfriend on the city payroll and that he abused council earmarks by steering money to questionable organizations. Mr. Bennett, who assembled a high-powered team of lawyers and accountants working at no charge, concluded that Mr. Barry violated conflict-of-interest laws and that he personally benefited from the $15,000 contract he arranged for Donna Watts-Brighthaupt. The report alleges that Mr. Barry gave Ms. Watts-Brighthaupt city checks and insisted that she cash them, giving him some of the money as repayment for loans he supposedly made to her. The report also accuses Mr. Barry of not cooperating, even trying to interfere, with the investigation. It urges referral to the U.S. Attorney's Office and the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance.

Mr. Barry denies many of the allegations, and he will be able to make a formal response to the report. But his obtuseness to ethical standards was apparent Tuesday as he attempted to argue with Mr. Bennett that the council has not enacted formal rules that would bar council members from hiring someone with whom they have a relationship. Mr. Bennett noted the existence of conflict-of-interest laws and other statutes, which would render such rules superfluous. As always, Mr. Barry claimed to be serving his needy constituents, though it seems the only people being helped were his political buddies and himself.

As Mr. Bennett noted, Mr. Barry has done some good things for the District in a political career spanning five decades, and he enjoys an enormous amount of goodwill. Indeed, it's that goodwill that's enabled him to stay in office despite his previous misdeeds. It took guts for the council to undertake this review; Mr. Gray empowered Mr. Bennett to conduct an independent investigation and let the chips fall where they may. Now the council has to follow through by making Mr. Barry face consequences for his misconduct and by taking to heart the report's suggestions to tighten controls on how public money is spent.

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