D.C. Council votes to censure Barry, strip him of chairmanship

By Nikita Stewart and Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; A01

D.C. Council member Marion Barry, at times slumped in his seat, pleaded with fellow Democrat Muriel Bowser, reminding her that he had known her since she was 7 years old. He appealed to Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, recalling their 35-year friendship, filled with intimate conversations.

Once the city's most powerful politician, Barry dropped his usual defiant tone in Tuesday's council meeting, where he was reduced to calling on longtime friends to save what's left of his stature. "You don't want to be known as the person who took Mr. Barry's due process away from him," Barry told Gray. "You're too good a person. I know you better than that. I love you. You're my friend. You got caught up."

But his pleas and his argument that he was being unfairly "singled out" did not persuade Gray or any other council members, who voted 12 to 0 to censure Barry, strip him of his committee chairmanship and refer allegations of public corruption to the U.S. attorney's office for possible prosecution.

The unprecedented sanctions stemmed from an investigation by Washington lawyer Robert S. Bennett, who concluded that Barry took a cut of a $15,000 contract he awarded to his then-girlfriend, Donna Watts-Brighthaupt. Barry violated conflict-of-interest rules and impeded the investigation, the report said.

Barry (Ward 8) twice implored colleagues to wait for an ethics review before they passed judgment. He told them that the report "reduced Marion Barry, 40 years of service, to a petty thief . . . to a Southeast hustler."

The sanctions further stain a career littered with scores of missteps, including Barry's 1990 arrest and later sentence for cocaine possession and his more recent tax troubles, which resulted in probation.

After the council meeting, Gray (D) was reflective and said in an interview that he did not mind Barry's mention of their longtime friendship. "You were looking at a man who's given 40 years of service to the city. He wanted to make the best case he could," Gray said. "He was appealing to everything he possibly could."

Bowser (Ward 4) said she had heard Barry tell the story of meeting her as a child before, but she was stunned that he shared the recollection on the dais Tuesday. "I was very perplexed. . . . I don't know. I don't know what to say," she said in an interview. "I feel very sad about it, but I think the process was fair."

'That's not justice'

At the council meeting, Gray gave Barry leeway to state his objections. Barry gave a series of long speeches, each before the resolutions that punished him and reformed the council's rules on reprimand and censure.

His first speech, which clocked in at 16 minutes and 30 seconds, came before the council unanimously approved the first resolution that censured him and referred the findings of the probe to the Office of Campaign Finance and the U.S. attorney's office for possible criminal prosecution.

He argued that Bennett's report was "inflammatory, accusatory, drawing conclusions without fact," and he said he did not violate the law. He urged his colleagues to refer the matter to the Board of Elections and Ethics before making any decisions. "Some people say, 'Well, let's just punish him anyway and see what happens,' " he said. "That's not justice. That's not due process. That's totalitarianism. You expect that in Russia, Iran or somewhere. Not in America."

When Gray called for the vote, Barry, whose microphone was not on, said, "Roll call." He repeated it. And when the last "aye" was spoken, he said, "I'm going -- what's the word?"

"Recuse," some council members said.

"I recuse myself," he said.

A second resolution removed Barry as chairman of the Committee on Housing and Workforce Development and replaced him with Michael A. Brown (I-At Large). It removed him as a member of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, an action that critics have long urged in light of his guilty plea in 2006 to a misdemeanor tax charge. Barry said the punishment did not match the findings. He said the public "ought to know I'm paying Uncle Sam $30,000 a year."

"This is so heavy-handed that it looks on the border of retaliation for something, something else," he said.

A defeated Barry appeared to be accepting the council's actions. He said he will attend finance committee meetings even though he will no longer be a member. The actions permit him to continue to sit on the housing committee, and he vowed to work with the new chairman.

He smiled, giggled a bit. And then the man who amazed the city when he was reelected mayor in 1994 in a legendary comeback said: "I think I might be more effective than I was. I have time to look at all these things.

"The people in Ward 8 are going to get more out of me than ever before."

'Entitled to mistakes'

It was a different scene Tuesday night when Barry arrived at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church in Ward 8, where he sat in a chair in front of several hundred people and Bishop C. Matthew Hudson called on other pastors to "anoint" him with oil and "lay hands" on him.

"Our mayor has a sickness that all of us have -- yours is just not public," Hudson said to laughs and cheers from the audience that, according to Barry's aide, included Watts-Brighthaupt.

"No matter what they do to him, or what he does to himself, he's always going to be the mayor of Washington, D.C.," Hudson said.

Barry was there to give his annual State of the Ward address, although Tuesday night's speech was particularly timely, given the council's censure vote. Several of the Ward 8 residents who attended said that despite the accusations and the council's actions, they still stand behind Barry. Most pointed to his service as mayor as the reason for their support, noting that he has helped seniors and secured work for young people.

"Everyone's entitled to mistakes," said Katrina Blakeney, 35, a stay-at-home mom who was there to sing with a visiting church choir. "He made sure all the youth kept summer jobs and after-school jobs. There was a place for us to go. . . . If they don't have proof, why slander his name?"

Often called the "mayor for life," Barry spoke of his legacy and the fairness in judging the entirety of his service, not just some of it. "I have no intentions of going anywhere" he said to applause. "They may take my committee chair. They can't take my dignity."

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