Former D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown, who recently finished serving time in prison for accepting bribes, is preparing to deliver a series of speeches about ethics to government employees.
The arrangement, brokered by the District’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, has prompted a question from some city officials: Are you kidding?
Brown, who was released from federal custody less than three months ago, must now fulfill an agreement he worked out with the ethics board in 2015 as part of his punishment for violating the city’s code of conduct.
That agreement, separate from the plea deal Brown negotiated with the U.S. attorney’s office, mandates that he “conduct 12 live, in-person presentations” in which he will “educate government employees on the risks inherent in engaging in unethical conduct.”
As observers of former mayor Marion Barry Jr.’s ups and downs could attest, the District’s political cycle of wrongdoing and contrition can spin fast enough to induce motion sickness. But the speed of Brown’s turnaround — one proposal on the table would have him featured as a speaker at the city’s “Ethics Day” training sessions this October — is giving pause to some newer ethics board members who were not around when Brown originally negotiated his duties as an instructor.
“I can see The Washington Post cartoon now,” said Carol Schwartz, a member of the ethics board and a former council member. “Maybe some time way off in the future, if he led a straight-and-narrow, appropriate life — great. I’d feel differently,” she said. “There’s a history here, and it’s too soon to know if he could be a teacher for ethics.”
Schwartz, along with ethics board chair Tameka Collier, an attorney for the U.S. Air Force, expressed concern at a meeting last month about the suggestion by the board’s staff to include Brown in the Ethics Day lineup.
“It is shocking enough to draw attention,” Collier said at the meeting. “My only concern is obviously making sure that the focus is not him, but ethics.” Collier did not respond to requests for comment last week.
Shock was an accurate description of the reaction to Brown’s new duties from Dorothy Brizill, a longtime citizen watchdog of D.C. city hall.
“Why don’t we just have a group session? We’ll bring in Kwame Brown and we’ll bring in Harry Thomas Jr.,” Brizill said, referring to two of Brown’s former council colleagues. In 2012, Thomas admitted to stealing more than $350,000 from District-funded youth programs. Kwame Brown pleaded guilty the same year to a felony bank fraud charge.
“I’m from the old school, where a teacher in front of a class is like a preacher in front of the pulpit,” Brizill said. “A certain moral authority goes along with it. A certain prestige goes along with it. That should not be accorded to someone like Michael Brown.”
Brown, 52, admitted in 2013 to taking $55,000 in cash from undercover FBI agents posing as contractors trying to do business with the city. He accepted some of the money — which he was secretly recorded referring to as a “piece of the piece,” a phrase that immediately found its place in the District’s crowded annals of political corruption — in a Washington Redskins mug.
Brown, who was granted special permission by a judge to travel to Long Island to get married in June, briefly spoke to a reporter over the phone last week.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said of his upcoming presentations to government workers.
He referred further questions to his attorney, who did not return calls.
Brian Flowers, the interim director of the ethics board staff, said the agency was reviewing its options for fulfilling the deal with Brown in light of board members’ concerns.
“It doesn’t look good for Ethics Day,” Flowers said of the likelihood of Brown appearing at the event. One alternative the ethics staff is considering, he said, is for Brown to appear in “some type of video” that would be played for District workers.
Robert J. Spagnoletti, the former D.C. attorney general who approved Brown’s settlement with the ethics board when he was its chairman, did not return calls.
Georgetown University Law Center professor Paul Butler said that while Brown’s speaking gigs are likely to draw guffaws, they are in line with a trend in thinking at the vanguard of criminal justice reform: constructive programs and opportunities for people leaving prison.
“It is easy to spoof what he’s doing, but I do think it’s part of this trend of respecting and trying to ease the transition of people back into the community,” Butler said.
“The idea of someone who has just been incarcerated as having something important to share is, I think, a useful concept. We often want to continue to punish people after they’ve served their time.”