Kwame Brown's personal debt is ammo in primary for D.C. Council chairmanship

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010; C01

When D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown wants an escape, he can climb into a Cadillac Escalade, head down to a private yacht club on the Anacostia River and fire up Bullet Proof, his 38-foot powerboat, before returning to his four-bedroom Hillcrest home.

Since December, three credit-card issuers have sued Brown (D-At Large) in D.C. Superior Court, alleging nonpayment of bills and interest exceeding $55,000, court records indicate. Brown settled one of the cases in April, agreeing to pay $500 a month toward a bill of nearly $24,000; the other cases remain active. The debt is compounded by Brown's repeated borrowing against his home and the purchase of the boat, a 1994 Chris-Craft Continental express cruiser, on credit. Brown estimates that his personal debt exceeds $700,000.

The situation clashes with what Brown is saying on the campaign trail, where he often presents his financial bona fides and emphasizes fiscal responsibility in his effort to win a job that gives him great control over $10 billion in annual city spending. "I am a bean counter," Brown told some Ward 3 residents last month. As council chairman, he added, "you need to get in the weeds."

Brown's opponent in the Democratic primary, former Ward 5 council member Vincent B. Orange Sr., has started to make Brown's credit-card debt a campaign issue by directly linking it to the city's fiscal health -- the District is perilously close to a 12 percent debt ceiling that Brown voted to adhere to.

"It's poor judgment for him to not have cleaned that situation up," Orange said Thursday on WRC-TV. "Is this the person you want to send to Wall Street? Is this the person you want to send to the Congress?"

Brown, who leads the council's economic development committee and describes his professional record as "stellar," has sought to portray his debts as everyday household expenses, the "new spending that you take on as a growing family." But a review of public records and interviews with Brown indicate that he is emblematic of a time when ballooning real estate values and easy credit were taken as license to finance personal luxuries.

"We continued to spend, and we overspent," said Brown, adding that his family is now on a strict budget. "We were spending like we had no kids, and we had two [kids and] one income," he said. "I've accepted full responsibility, and we've made arrangements to make sure it gets taken care of."

Real estate boom

In 2006, like many homeowners across the nation, the Browns found themselves with a home that was valued at much more than they ever imagined.

Brown and his wife, Marcia, had purchased the brick home, on a hill across from a wooded gully, for $313,000 in late 2002. They got a 30-year, fixed-rate loan from Industrial Bank and within a year borrowed against the equity. According to real estate records, the couple refinanced in 2004, signing a $319,260 adjustable-rate note from Washington Mutual, adding soon after a $92,000 home equity line of credit from SunTrust.

In 2006, at the height of the market, the Browns refinanced again, borrowing $598,000 from McLean-based First Savings Mortgage Corp. At the time, Brown was drawing a $92,530 salary as a council member; his wife had left her job to raise their two children, born in 2001 and 2003, and would not return to work until 2007. "We made a sacrifice for that, and I don't regret that sacrifice," said Brown, who now is paid $122,530 a year and stands to make $190,000 if elected chairman.

In October 2006, less than four months after closing on the refinance, Brown completed an application for a Visa card through the Department of Commerce Federal Credit Union. (He was an executive in the department's Business Liaison Office during the Clinton administration.) On the application, Brown wrote that he had an outstanding mortgage balance of $506,000 on a home he estimated to be worth $850,000. At the time, the city's assessment -- which tends to lag behind market trends -- valued the home at $357,930.

Chuck Riley, a real estate agent active in the Hillcrest market and a neighbor of Brown's, estimates the home's current market value at no more than $420,000. The balance on the mortgage, Brown said, far exceeds that figure and the line of credit is still active.

Brown says the home equity was used for household expenses and to help family members through financial difficulties. "You step up and provide," he said.

Told of Brown's financial decisions, Riley said it was a familiar story. "It doesn't sound [like] anything out of whack -- not for the time frame," he said.

As Brown's debt grew, he continued to project an image of affluence. Until earlier this year, Brown drove a 2000 Mercedes-Benz E350 for which he paid $19,000 -- one of three cars in the household. "I like cars. There's no question that Kwame likes cars," he said, reciting a list of used Mercedes-Benzes he has driven in years past. "I try to get the best value I can for the dollar I spend on my car."

But Brown said he is cutting back. He sold the Benz earlier this year, he said, leaving him with a 2003 Lincoln Navigator SUV and a 1999 Ford F-250 pickup with custom wheels -- both vehicles owned free and clear. But he regularly drives a 2008 Escalade ESV leased for $1,380 a month -- including insurance for any driver -- by his campaign, which raised more than $200,000 in its first two months, according to a June campaign finance report.

The Escalade is covered in a "skin" -- a full-body sign touting Brown's candidacy. "You can buy billboards or you can find another way to really turn heads," he said.

Part of the club

In 2005, shortly after winning election to the council, Brown started thinking about getting a boat. "It was a great time to buy a boat," Brown said. "I assumed that I could buy it, enjoy it with my two kids, finally show them the water, show them something I didn't get exposed to as a kid."

He set his sights on the District Yacht Club, tucked into the Anacostia's "Boathouse Row" -- not exactly the province of the blazer-wearing Thurston-and-Lovey set. "Most of the people here are everyday people -- average salaries, middle income," said Marvin T. Storey, a 40-year club member and a former board member. The city's commercial marinas, mostly on the Washington Channel, can cost the owner of a boat of Bullet Proof's size several thousand dollars annually in membership and slip fees, but the nonprofit District Yacht Club charges $150 a month or less. The club requires members to contribute sweat equity, helping with repairs and maintenance, and Brown did his time before he docked his first boat, a 28-foot 2004 Bayliner. He later traded up to the Chris-Craft.

"I was persistent because I believed that D.C. residents should have an opportunity to have a boat and be a part of a club," Brown said.

But Storey said he has not seen much of Brown. "He's gotten so wrapped up in politics, he really hasn't had time for boating," he said.

Brown said he regrets his nautical foray. He would like to list the boat for sale at $50,000, but he has had trouble finding a broker open to that price. Anything less, he said, will exacerbate his financial troubles. "I can't afford to lose $30,000 on a purchase," he said.

Frank Gary, a broker with Walczak Yacht Brokerage Service in Annapolis and a past president of the Yacht Brokers Association of America, said Brown's boat is of a type that makes it tough to sell these days. "They think it's glamorous, and they think it's in their price range. But they don't understand the money it takes to keep it on the water," Gary said. "There's a lot of competition out there. We've gone through severe financial times."

Brown purchased the boat in 2007 from a struggling businessman in Woodbridge. He paid $50,000 -- well below the boat's $73,000-plus market price -- with the hope that he might sell it someday and make a tidy profit.

The boat came with a sign on the deck: "If you have to ask, you can't afford it."

Staff writers Ann E. Marimow and Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.

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