D.C. might censure Marion Barry over alleged corruption

D.C. Council member Marion Barry is accused of taking a cut from a contract he secured for a former girlfriend.
D.C. Council member Marion Barry is accused of taking a cut from a contract he secured for a former girlfriend. (Richard A. Lipski/the Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010

Several D.C Council members said Wednesday that they will move quickly to censure Marion Barry, perhaps stripping him of his committee chairmanship, if he is not able to clear himself of public corruption allegations by next week.

Barry (D), who represents Ward 8 on the council, has until Tuesday to respond to a report to the council by lawyer Robert S. Bennett accusing him of benefiting from a city contract he secured for a former girlfriend.

Although Barry has long enjoyed a good relationship with many of his council colleagues, there were signs Wednesday that he is losing support.

"The report is so thorough and so detailed and so convincing that I really don't see what rebuttal there could be," said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3). "It's time for us now to stand up for the ethics and the reputation of the institution."

Bennett, backed by a team of investigators, recommended that the allegations against Barry be referred to the U.S. attorney's office for possible criminal investigation. Federal prosecutors have declined to comment on the report. It remains unclear whether they think they could build a case against the former mayor.

Bennett, who was retained by the council to conduct the probe, accuses Barry of taking a cut from a $15,000 contract that he had secured in 2008 for a woman he was romantically involved with. The Bennett report also alleges that Barry used city earmarks to benefit friends and political supporters.

Barry denies the accusations. He declined to comment Wednesday, but his attorney, Fred Cooke, said Wednesday he will draft a rebuttal to the report in coming days.

Several council members said they want to give Barry a chance to respond to Bennett's allegations before they consider a potential punishment.

"To say, based on the Bennett report, without Barry's response, that we've got to do X, Y and Z is premature," said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). "To make a decision now, without giving him the benefit of the doubt of the process, would not be fair to him or anybody else."

But Barry's explanations have not impressed his colleagues.

"Marion should have taken some responsibility," said council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At large). "He should have expressed some remorse."

Speaking on NewsChannel 8, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said Barry and Cooke have until Tuesday to present their official rebuttal to Bennett. Gray said he then plans to have the council consider a possible censure resolution March 2.

Unlike with Congress and many state legislatures, the D.C. Charter does not include a mechanism for impeachment. The District has a recall provision, but 10 percent of Ward 8 voters would have to sign a petition to put the issue on the ballot.

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said that absent a criminal probe, it will most likely be up the council to determine any potential punishment.

"These are very serious allegations. The conclusions -- they are not allegations, they are conclusions -- by our special counsel amount to the fact that Marion took kickbacks" from a former girlfriend, Catania said. "The council does not have the authority to remove Mr. Barry from office. That responsibility rests with the voters of Ward 8. But we do have the authority to determine which committee he sits on and whether or not he chairs a committee."

Barry heads the Committee on Housing and Workforce Development. If removed, he would be the only Democraticcouncil member without a chairmanship, significantly reducing his ability to affect policy. He would lose a $350,000 staff allowance that each committee chairman is given. He would keep the $350,000 annual budget that each council member gets to staff individual offices.

The council also might consider removing Barry from his assignment on the influential Committee on Finance and Revenue.

Before the report, some members questioned why Barry remained on that committee even though he has been convicted of failing to file federal tax returns.

"I think we should consider all of his options, once we hear his response," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). "It's obviously very serious, but I want to be fair to him."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company