By Robert McCartney
Thursday, February 18, 2010; B01
The remarkable report issued Tuesday by prominent Washington lawyer Robert S. Bennett has done a considerable public service to District taxpayers by blasting a gaping hole in the myth of council member Marion Barry's selflessness.
In this legend, strongly promoted by Barry (D-Ward 8), the former mayor has been in politics only to help his underprivileged constituents, not for his own sake. Although he struggled with drugs and the IRS, the lore said, Barry was never guilty of monetary corruption.
Now, Bennett and a team of other high-powered lawyers, working for free, have alleged with abundant, rigorous detail that Barry engaged in widespread misuse of city funds for his own sake and that of cronies. The report is hurting Barry, even in his political base east of the Anacostia River.
The impact is "no longer personal; it's community-wide," said Katesha Nixon, 29, a secretary at a federal government agency, as she waited for a bus outside the Anacostia Metro station Tuesday evening. "When you're taking money away from your own people, it's just wrong," she said.
In addition to the information about Barry, the 107-page Bennett report provides a rare, authoritative look at how lax and shoddy the D.C. government can be in spending public money and how desperately the system as a whole needs to be reformed.
The D.C. Council, which commissioned the report, has taken steps to tighten controls. But the investigation makes it clear that it needs to go much further to ensure that politicians can't tap taxpayer dollars purely for the sake of political patronage -- or, apparently, in Barry's case, for romantic pursuits.
The report says Barry used first the promise and then the fact of a city contract to assist in wooing Donna Watts-Brighthaupt in 2008 and early 2009. It says that he violated city conflict-of-interest laws and other procedures to get her the research deal, for which she copied much of the work off the Internet. He skimmed up to $4,000 off the $15,000 contract to repay what he said were loans but that she said were gifts.
Barry's wrongdoing was broader, though, the report says. He arranged for tens of thousands of dollars of city money to go to friends and acquaintances, often in violation of spending rules. One beneficiary was his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, who received $16,466. Signatures were forged to get necessary approvals, and one grant recipient created a phony paper trail to cover his tracks.
Barry repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) sought sexual favors from grant beneficiary Sharon Wise, the report says. Wise said Barry later threatened to "blackball" her if she kept complaining to the D.C. Council about mismanagement of the grants. Wise testified that Barry told her: "[Y]ou're not going to be able to work in this town. People know me. They don't know you."
In its broader conclusions, the Bennett report urges stricter accounting and more transparency for the so-called personal service contracts extended by council members. They've gotten most of the attention because that's how Barry helped Watts-Brighthaupt.
But it's even more important to reform or scrap the system of earmarks, appropriations given for a specific purpose at the behest of individual D.C. Council members or the mayor's office. Much more money is at stake, so there's a bigger risk of malfeasance and bad choices. Earmark grants create "substantial opportunities for waste and abuse," the report says.
Annual earmarks soared from $1.25 million in fiscal 2005 to $48 million in 2009, and Barry's not the only one who has exploited the system. Last year, the council member who sponsored or co-sponsored the most earmarks in dollar terms was Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). The D.C. budget for the current fiscal year, which ends in September, doesn't have any earmarks, but only because the city is so strapped it can't afford them.
Considering that the D.C. Council's own perks were under investigation, the council and its chairman, Vincent C. Gray, deserve some credit for ordering the inquiry. They issued a broad mandate and stayed out of the way for seven months while the lawyers interviewed more than 40 witnesses and studied more than a half-million pages of documents.
"There was absolutely no interference or second-guessing. They wanted the job done, and they wanted it done right," Bennett said.
Now the council and prosecutors must decide how to punish Barry, 73, and his reputation seems likely to diminish even among the faithful. In interviews I conducted in Anacostia, residents criticized him for taking money from Watts-Brighthaupt's contract, although many still said he was the best mayor the District has ever had.
"For him to do anything like that with the hard-earned money of District workers is not right," said Anthony Jones, 32, a sales consultant. He said he wouldn't judge Barry unless a court finds him guilty: "He did a lot of things to help the community." Jones and many others in Southeast used the past tense in describing Barry's achievements.
It would be best for everyone if Barry took this opportunity to retire. It's also time for the council and prosecutors to do their jobs and pick up where Bennett left off. They should do a thorough investigation of all of the District's money and contracting issues. If this study is any measure, there's a lot of ugly stuff going on that we seldom get a chance to see.