Marion Barry accused of corruption

The Washington Post's Robert McCartney talks about a report that says the D.C. Council member personally benefited from the contract he obtained for his former girlfriend and directed earmarks that "provided substantial financial benefits to some of his close friends and supports."
Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; 11:00 AM

A team of investigators hired by the D.C. City Council accused council member Marion Barry of public corruption Tuesday for securing a $15,000 contract for his ex-girlfriend and taking a cut for himself.

Barry, 73, denied the allegations leveled against him. "I have been in office 55 years, and even my public enemies, my political enemies, my other enemies have never implied that I ever took a penny that wasn't owed to me," Barry said from the council dais in reaction to Bennett's report.

Washington Post staff writer Nikita Stewart was online Wednesday, Feb. 17, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the charges.


Ironton, Ohio: How many charges has Marion Barry had against him and how many has he been found guilty of?

Nikita Stewart: He was convicted of one cocaine possession charge in the now-infamous Vista Hotel ordeal. He also had a plea deal in his failure to pay taxes. That's all despite several incidents involving police, most recently the stalking charge.


Anonymous: Barry says that no rules are written down re Council contracts, therefore he broke none. Is this true?

Nikita Stewart: According to Robert Bennett and Amy Sabrin, the lead investigators, there are several codes within the city law that would apply to Barry's actions on the contracts.


Rockville, Md.: Nikita, thank you for hosting this chat. It was a really great article -- and it raised a lot of questions. Mr. Barry said that he diverted money to help 'raise up' Ward 8. How does it do that? How exactly would the money help his constituents? Is there a paper trail? What exactly is "walking around money" and how does it really help? Because it sounds like it is in the form of cash, not funding city projects in 8. Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry is accused of corruption (Post, Feb. 17)

Nikita Stewart: Amy Sabrin, deputy special counsel in the investigation, testified before council members yesterday that they found many honest and hardworking people along the way. Barry explained yesterday that the groups awarded money had actually started out as volunteer organizations. The funds given to them were to help them with the services they were already providing. But investigators found troubling circumstances with some of the groups. Barry's friends and associates were among those getting paid.


Washington, D.C.: Was Barry in public office at age 18 as he sems to be implying?

Nikita Stewart: Barry entered public office in the early 1970s as a school board member. We should have noted that. But Barry was a college activist and a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. He was "elected" to positions within organizations during that time.


Vienna, Va.: I've lived in the DC area my whole life and was surprised to see that D.C. council members are allowed to give earmarks. How does that process work and is there no council review/process to check what the money is being used for? Seems to me that any government (federal being the biggest abuser of this) that allows memembers to have some pot of money they can direct however they see fit is asking for problems.

Nikita Stewart: The council's earmark process is fairly new. It grew tremendously after controversy over an earmark to Ford's Theatre a few years ago. Several council members thought it was unfair to give millions of dollars to a project that was community-based. That opened a door of I'll-give-you-this-if-you-give-me-that. In fiscal year 2009, the council and mayor gave out nearly $48 million in earmarks. According to the Bennett report, Council member Jack Evans backed or co-sponsored the largest amount: $16.5 million. But Council member Barry sponsored the most grants, divvying up $8 million among 41 groups and projects.


Silver Spring, Md.: When Post writers mention, and quote others that mention, "the good that Marion Barry has done for the city," can they give specifics or press the source to elaborate? Give us examples of Barry's "good" legacy. Thank you.

Nikita Stewart: Go around this city, and you'll find someone who says "Marion Barry gave me my first job." His summer youth jobs program, which continues under Mayor Fenty, is legendary for its giving young people not only a job, but hopefully building a work ethic. Also, there are plenty of folks who credit Barry with helping to build the black middle class by opening the door for government jobs for which they were qualified but had not been receiving.


Washington, D.C.: How is it possible that City Council members are allowed to execute contracts? Does any other major city have such a procurement system?

Nikita Stewart: I have covered several cities where council members and aldermen are given control over the budgets for their offices and also have access to discretionary funds. The council's budget appeared to work similarly, but the checks and balances that were in place were not working. Bennett and Sabrin both testified yesterday that employees who oversee such grants and contracts were afraid to speak up because they had been ordered up by council members. Bennett said that intimidation must end.


Washington, D.C.: Is the City Council likely to take any action or will they just ignore them?

Nikita Stewart: Some council members said yesterday that they believe the report must be referred to the U.S. Attorney's Office. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray said in an interview that censure is also possible. The council will likely take some action in this election year when residents appear more worried about corruption and government waste during hard economic times.


Washington, D.C. (east o'river): There are some tinges of the C linton impeachment to this case -- info brought out by sexual dalliances, Bob Bennett's involvement, etc. Do you think Barry and Ward 8 voters will see similarities and use any tactics to deflect wrongdoing?

Nikita Stewart: I don't know about this strategy. I do find Bennett's involvement, considering his history, fascinating. I thought that from the beginning.


Washington, D.C.: I have been a resident of the District of Columbia all of my life. I and my family have benefited from many of the innovative programs that have come out of the Barry administration, i.e., summer jobs, senior citizen centers, roving leaders programs, to name a few. How tragic it is to watch someone's career come this far and possibly end on a negative note for reasons that have plagued him throughout...poor judgment. It is extremely difficult to believe that someone with Council member Barry's great wealth of knowledge could not understand why people are outraged over this last scandal. Pure and don't hire your girlfriend, whether qualified or not; pay her for substandard work; and then, take money back from her because you think it is owed to you. This is taxpayer money, not your personal stash. Quite frankly, we are tired of it. Even those of us who have continuously supported you over the years. Even those of us who have continued to support your "good work" and "strategic vision," can no longer tolerate behavior that has become a distraction to the more important business of the District of Columbia, that is, improving our education system, providing job training to residents that have some of the lowest literacy rates in the country, and finding them jobs.

Nikita Stewart: There's no question here. But I thought I would share. I have found several residents like this, expressing disappointment.


Washington, D.C: I could be mistaken, but isn't this similiar to what the mayor did as well with some of his old associates?

Nikita Stewart: There are several questions and statements like this in my chat box. Folks are trying to compare Barry's troubles to the contracts controversy involving Fenty's friends. Well, Barry is accused of driving Watts-Brighthaupt to the bank to cash a contract payment check and demanding money from her. I don't think were can compare the two.


Vienna, Va.: Thanks for the feedback on the earmarks. I had no idea it was that large. I realize that since I don't live in the city, its not really my taxes and only indirectly impacts me. That said, I hope this serves as a wakeup call to voters, not just in D.C., but everywhere. I certainly want to know how my taxes are being spent and any kind of under the table dealing is just plain wrong.

Nikita Stewart: Check your local elected officials. I covered Prince William County for The Washington Post before covering the District. One of my last stories there was about a discretionary funds. No, the amounts were not the same, but the Board of Supervisors could dole out money to the groups of their choosing.


Washington, D.C.: Can anything kill Barry's political career? It sounds like he has no business holding public office, and yet he never seems to have to face the consequences of his actions.

Nikita Stewart: Barry has faced consequences. He was sentenced for his cocaine charge. He is repaying his federal and local taxes. But voters have returned Barry to office in more than one comeback story. Barry stressed yesterday that he has always tried to lift people up and to work for Ward 8. Despite aspiring newcomers, he was overwhelmingly reelected in his last bid. So I don't know the answer: Can anything kill Barry's political career?

I can tell you that nothing has yet.


Washington, D.C.: Has any of the other city council people been investigated for awarding contracts to constituents?

Nikita Stewart: The Bennett investigation expanded to other council members. But he said in an interview yesterday that nothing rose to the level of Barry's contract with Watts-Brighthaupt or to his earmarks. However, he stressed that his team could not look at every earmark. There was a randomn sampling, if you will. The D.C. Auditor's recent scrub of the earmarks showed that there needs to be an overhaul of the process. Bennett made recommendations, including giving money to groups that have been incorporated for at least three years and requiring a matching grant from the private sector.


Washington, D.C..: Has Councilman Barry broken any D.C. law or violated the code of ethics for an elected official?

Nikita Stewart: The Bennett report points to several ethics codes and notes that District officials are "specifically prohibited" from "using public office for private gain: giving preferential treatment to any one person; or engaging in consuct affecting adversely the confidence of the public in the integrity of government."


Nikita Stewart: Thank you all for your questions and comments. Barry continues to be a fascinating figure in local politics. We'll see what's next.


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