D.C. Mayor Marion Barry's wife Effi said yesterday that she accepts her husband's explanation that his relationship with convicted cocaine dealer Karen Johnson "was a nonintimate affair," and she suggested that Johnson should have left town "for the sake of her own dignity . . . . "
In a wide-ranging television interview, the mayor's wife also said she did not know whether any city government money was used to pay for a fur coat purchased for her several years ago, and she described the constant attention her husband receives from women as "a necessary nuisance that the wife of a power figure has to deal with."
The Washington Post reported Thursday that an aide to Marion Barry who controlled expenditures from the mayor's discretionary funds made a $1,500 payment on a fur coat owned by the mayor's wife. In the interview, Effi Barry confirmed the mayor's account of the controversy in which he said he repaid the staff member for a $1,500 payment on the furrier's bill.
"I mean he states that it was a nonintimate affair, and if he chooses to describe it as that, I will accept it," she said of allegations regarding Johnson. "But there are very few men in this town who can say they have not been involved in some way or the other with another woman during the period of their married life, be it platonic, romantic, sexual or whatever. What I blame him for is indiscretion."
Alluding to chronic rumors of "womanizing" by the mayor, who is 51, his wife said in a WRC-TV interview that "since the day we got married, he's always been involved with other women. So they say." She suggested that people may be misinterpreting harmless affectionate behavior. "If you take the term literally, most men tend to be womanizers in one way or the other," she said. "It's just the degree with which they exercise this.
"Marion is a black southern man, and southern folks love people. I mean they hug and they kiss and they get very personal. And they will pull up a chair and put their feet under your kitchen table and become very folksy."
Johnson, 35, is a key figure in the federal grand jury investigation of alleged corruption in the city government. She was sentenced to prison in 1984 and served additional time on a contempt citation that year for refusing to answer questions about Marion Barry's alleged involvement with drugs.
Sources have said that Johnson, who was released from prison in 1985, has told prosecutors that she received payments from one, and possibly two, D.C. contractors in return for her silence.
Effi Barry, 41, said she did not understand Johnson's decision to return to Washington after her release from incarceration.
"I think that she was foolish to stay in town," Barry said. "If she served her time or whatever she had to do, I think she should have gotten out of town for the sake of her own dignity . . . and start a new life somewhere else."
Barry said she accepted her husband's claim that the relationship was not sexual, but she acknowledged that there have been constant rumors about the mayor's alleged womanizing.
Asked if she was angry when she learned of the mayor's relationship with Johnson, Barry said that she reacted "as any wife might when she discovers that there possibly has been an affair."
Johnson's lawyer, G. Allen Dale, said in an interview last night that "there is no reason for Karen Johnson to leave this city."
Johnson was jailed in August 1984 and remained there eight months for refusing to answer questions before a federal grand jury. She then served four months in a federal halfway house for possession and sale of cocaine.
In last night's interview, Effi Barry complained of having her family's privacy invaded, saying that she was once asked at a party whether the mayor was "a good lover."
"So how am I supposed to react . . . how do I respond?" she said. "You don't respond."