No 'vindication' in a report on Marion Barry's ethics missteps

Saturday, August 7, 2010

TO HEAR D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) tell it, he's been vindicated by the Office of Campaign Finance's investigation into the actions that resulted in his receiving an unprecedented censure from his colleagues. It seems that Mr. Barry's reading of the report is as selective as his understanding of what constitutes proper ethical behavior for a public official. Not only did the report concur with the major findings of Special Counsel Robert S. Bennett, but it also delivered a harshly worded admonishment for conduct that "adversely affected the confidence of the public in the integrity of the District Government."

The report delivered this week by the campaign finance office faulted Mr. Barry for failing to disclose his personal and financial relationship with Donna Watts-Brighthaupt at the time he was seeking a city contract for her. In a separate matter, it found that Mr. Barry failed to closely monitor the activities of his employees and the operations of his citizen-service program, which resulted in the entanglement of the citizen-service program with Ward 8 groups that received government earmarks. Wrote Kathy S. Williams, the office's general counsel, "had there not been a censure proceeding against the Councilmember, it would have been my recommendation to the Director that disciplinary action be taken against the Councilmember.''

Mr. Bennett, who conducted the council investigation that led to Mr. Barry's censure five months ago, and the campaign finance office agreed that his actions violated various provisions of the D.C. Personnel Manual. These prohibit conduct that creates an appearance of impropriety or that adversely affects public confidence in government integrity.

The investigations differed, though, on whether Mr. Barry's actions violated the city's conflict-of-interest laws. The office of campaign finance appeared to bend over backward to see things Mr. Barry's way, with the most glaring example being the conclusion that Ms. Watts-Brighthaupt "produced a satisfactory written product." Mr. Bennett's report made a convincing case that the work product didn't conform to the final contract and that portions were, in fact, copied from the Internet.

The U.S. attorney's office was also asked to investigate and, while it won't comment on its plans, we can only hope it, too, is examining the matter. Meanwhile, it might be a good idea for the council to take its own look at its conflict-of-interest laws to see if they need tightening.

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