Marion Barry: Violating the Public Trust?

Robert McCartney
Washington Post Metro Columnist
Thursday, July 9, 2009; 12:00 PM

Post Metro columnist Robert McCartney was online Thursday, July 9, at Noon ET to discuss Marion Barry and the questionable use of D.C. Council funds to pay former girlfriend Donna Watts-Brighthaupt. McCartney has called for an investigation and contends that it will help signal whether the District wants to move away from a political culture too tolerant of cronyism and self-dealing.


Robert McCartney: Let's go. By coincidence, Barry is having a press conference starting at noon. I'll watch it out of corner of my eye, and post anything that seems interesting.


Petworth, D.C.: I think this discussion is an interesting exercise, but that's all it is. Barry's constituency has proven in the past that he can break whatever laws he chooses and they will continue to elect him. What makes you think putting a girlfriend on his payroll will make any difference?

Robert McCartney: Two things may be different this time. First, we're hearing that other D.C. Council members and the mayor's office are increasingly frustrated with the bad publicity over Barry's activities. It's a particularly sensitive time, when the District is pushing to get voting rights, and this story doesn't help. Second, D.C. taxpayers' money, money in the Council's own budget, is involved. That makes it a public accountability issue, to a greater degree than in some earlier issues with Barry.


"...signal whether the District wants to move away from a political culture too tolerant of cronyism and self-dealing." : Uh, no. No, they don't.

Robert McCartney: This writer is quoting from my column this morning, and saying he or she doubts that the District will do the right thing here. We'll just have to wait and see. District Attorney General Peter Nickles said strongly late yesterday that he'd launch an investigation if the Council didn't, although his "strong preference" was for the Council to do it.

_______________________ Police Thyself, D.C. Council (Post, July 9)


Logan North, D.C.: In your column today, you characterize Marion Barry as "a stalwart, effective representative of the city's disadvantaged." Stalwart I will concede. But effective? Just what has Marion Barry done as a D.C. councilmember from Ward 8 that has actually helped the city's disadvantaged? In the last 20 years, has Barry been effective at anything other than indulging his own personal whims? Anthony Williams, in many ways the anti-Barry, actually appeared far more effective in helping the underclass.

Robert McCartney: Barry works hard. He shows up at a lot of Council events, presses his issues and raises awareness of them. It's not accurate to say he only indulges his "personal whims." His effectiveness is limited partly by the fact that he's only one member of the Council.

_______________________ Video: Barry's Ex-Girlfriend Speaks


SE, D.C.: How about the local media just take a sabbatical from covering Marion Barry?

Really, the editors and producers of local D.C. news really need to stop feeding this man. He thrives on all this. I'm born and raised from D.C. I've heard things about Barry in the street that have always proven to be true too. People know the truth of the man. Yet the media attack and attention always save him because he can always count on that 20-25 percent of his base to embrace and protect him as the victim.

Robert McCartney: We're not taking any sabbaticals from covering Marion Barry. He's a public official, some of whose activities are questionable. Taxpayer money is involved (although, frankly, not a lot). He's a prominent leader of one important political tendency within the District. Finally, there's a lot of interest in him, partly because of his long history and all the controversies about him. Our readers want to know what's happening with him. We don't call off covering a story because the subject "thrives" on it.


Arlington, Va.: I lived in D.C. for quite a while and actually voted for Marion Barry in the primary race against Washington and Phillips and, of course, voted for him several times before rental issues forced me out of the District. I do honor Barry as a man who had the interests of District residents at heart, but somewhere in the intervening years, he lost his way. It is all very sad!

Robert McCartney: Here's a comment expressing a point of view that I believe is shared by many District residents. Barry rose to leadership through the civil rights movement, and is credited with helping to build the black middle class in the City during the first part of his career. As time went on, though, his career suffered repeated setbacks because of his struggles with drugs and alcohol, and ethical controversies. Now he's in his early 70s and in poor health. There's a lot of disillusionment with him -- but also sympathy and respect for what he did earlier.


Annapolis, Md.: I was born in D.C. and lived there my entire life before retiring to Annapolis a few years ago. The most amazing thing to me about this whole episode was learning that, in addition to their obscenely high salaries, D.C. Council members are given $300,000 for staff and an additional $300,000 for committee staff if they chair a committee -- and don't they all chair a committee? And there are no checks whatsoever on how this money is used? For those of us of a certain age, does Elizabeth Ray come to mind?

Members of the Annapolis City Council are paid $18,000/year and also receive a few thousand for official expenses. I know Annapolis is a much smaller city than Washington, but I'm happy my taxes are no longer going there.

Robert McCartney: (By the way, the Barry news conference scheduled for noon hasn't begun.) Yes, this is indeed an interesting fact that's come to light. D.C. Council members get about $300,000 to hire staff, and those who are committee chairs (the vast majority) get an extra $380,000 or so. That's a lot of money to play with. It was the source of the money Barry used for the contract with his ex-girlfriend. Voters will be asking how that money is used, and accounted for, and not just by Barry.


Washington, D.C.: Bob, I wholeheartedly agree with Logan North. Please name one -- ONE -- piece of legislation Barry has championed in the past session that has helped poor people in D.C. Also, you must not attend council meetings, because Barry is often late or doesn't show up at all - -and that was before his kidney transplant. He is always on his cell phone -- now we have an insight into why. Please stop calling Barry effective unless you can prove it.

Robert McCartney: Several questioners have made this point, albeit not quite as forcefully as this writer.

Here are two things that Barry has done. He pushed legislation to help ex-offenders; it was approved. He also co-sponsored the bill to add a 5-cent tax for plastic bags, to help battle trash in Anacostia River.

He is late to a lot of meetings, and misses some. And he was late to the press conference today, which is just starting now.

But he works at being a Council member. He doesn't shirk his duties.

He's talking now. I'm going to listen. He just thanked God and his "brilliant attorney" for dropping the stalking charge against him.


Colorado Springs, Colo.: Is it unfair to assume that everyone hired by Mr. Barry is unfit, and only hired due to their personal relationship with him?

Robert McCartney: Yes, of course that's unfair.


Robert McCartney: Barry is denouncing the Park Police for arresting him. It never should have happened, it was completely inappropriate, he says.

_______________________ Live Streaming: Marion Barry Press Conference


Arlington, Va.: When a town continually re-elects someone who is one of the most embarrassing politicians in the country, you get what's coming to you. The idea of people in D.C. actually electing someone to the House scares me. What would stop them from elevating mayor for life to representative for life (other than E. Holmes Norton would win the seat for as long as she wanted it).

Robert McCartney: Reporters at the press conference want to ask about the contract with his ex-girlfriend, Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, but Barry and his spokeswoman are refusing to talk about it. They say the purpose of the press conference is to discuss only the arrest Saturday on charges of stalking Watts-Brighthaupt.

This seems to be a change of plans in one respect. Barry's spokeswoman said at her press conference yesterday evening that information would be made available today about the Watts-Brighthaupt contract. In particular, reporters want to know what her educational and other qualifications were for doing the job, and how many hours she worked for the $15,000 she has received so far under the contract.

As for the question above: Barry is elected by just one district, Ward 8. Even there, newcomers in the ward are trying to push him out. There's no way he'd win election to the U.S. House in a citywide race. He couldn't even be reelected mayor.

I wish there were as much outrage out there over the District's lack of voting rights as there is over Marion Barry's shortcomings.


Robert McCartney: Barry press conference is over. He revealed a few more details about the circumstances of the arrest, including that he was handcuffed. (I don't think we knew that, although maybe I just overlooked it.)

Barry didn't look healthy. At the end, when he walked back up the steps of the Wilson Building on Pennsylvania Ave., he took the steps slowly and tentatively.


Washington, D.C.: Your math is a bit off. Council members do get $300k for office staff and an additional $300k for committee staff (and 12 of the 13 council members chair committees). But they also get an additional $30k-50k or so for "constituent services". And they can also raise additional money for "constituent services". No public accounting is ever made of how the Council spends its money. Yet the Council's own administrative budget has exploded in the past 5 years. While all other city agencies are in hiring freezes and cutting staff, the Council is the ONLY part of the DC government that is hiring staff and increasing its budget.

Robert McCartney: I don't know the details of how the money is broken down. Your information could be 100 percent correct. You write with authority, so I'm betting this is accurate, though I'd have to check it out before putting it in the paper.


Washington, D.C.: Why didn't the Washington Post have the same audio tapes that the City Paper did? It seems like most of the reporting on this story came from outlets other than the Post.

Robert McCartney: Harrumph. The ex-girlfriend's camp leaked the audio tapes to the Washington City Paper. They're a respected competitor, and we can't get all the scoops (though we try). You ignore, however, that we've gotten one really big exclusive on this story. My colleague Tim Craig broke the story that Watts-Brighthaupt was on the City's payroll. That's the angle -- questionable use of public funds -- that is going to matter in the long run. So I'm pretty happy with our competitive performance on this story, even if City Paper got some admittedly juicy material.


U Street, D.C.: Marion Barry is known to hit on women of all ages constantly. Some women think it's a compliment to attract the attention of such a larger than life character, and some of those interactions might result in a consensual relationship.

Even so, how is that not some form of sexual harassment? How has he gotten away with this for years and years? And allowed to continue? The whole situation reminds me of harassment charges Anne Arundel county executive John Leopold is facing...

Robert McCartney: I don't know much about this. If there have been grounds for harassment allegations against Barry, I'm not aware of them.

_______________________ Ex-Girlfriend Worked for Barry as a Contractor (Post, July 8)


North Manchester, Ind.: Outrage over voting rights? Since the earliest days of the country, it has been the law that residents in D.C. would not be able to vote on some things. If you move next door to a pig farm, it is going to smell sometimes. If you move to D.C., you give up the right to vote on some parts of your life. It's a choice.

Robert McCartney: That begs the question of why should residents of the nation's capital have to make such a choice? They pay taxes. The country was founded in part on demands for no taxation without representation. By your argument, the Founding Fathers weren't justified in seeking independence, because they "chose" to live in the 13 colonies, so they should shut up already about not having representation in London.

(I was going to add a snide comment about Indiana and pig farms, but I'll restrain myself.)


Washington, D.C.: Arlington's concern that the people are not entitled to representation because of Barry is so disturbing -- why should the citizens of D.C. be refused congressional representation because of Barry's actions when very numerous other congressional representatives and senators of other states have been accused, convicted and did/or do serve prison sentences? We don't need to "earn" representation.

Robert McCartney: Thank you for this wise and insightful comment.


Washington, D.C.: I live in the city and I have to say, it's hard to hear comments about the city getting what's coming to us. I didn't vote for Barry since I don't live in Ward 8 (I'm in 6), and yet his actions/issues stain the whole city. We need to find a way to either get him back on track or get him out of the council altogether -- either way, please don't think the whole city agrees with him (or any individual council member) just because he's on the council.

Robert McCartney: Yes, I think it's important to underline that Barry does not have support from the entire city. Quite the opposite. The question is whether the rest of the city is now going to move strongly to rein in his excesses.

That's all for this time. I apologize to those who submitted questions that I didn't get a chance to answer. I tried to touch at least briefly on all the topics that were raised. Thanks for participating.


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