The witness wore shades.
The man who declared Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) a party to a payoff made his long-awaited appearance before the inquisitors of the D.C. Council on Monday, and if the moment weren’t charged enough, Sulaimon Brown made it all the stranger by refusing to remove his sunglasses throughout his afternoon in the spotlight.
Brown, the fringe mayoral candidate who alleges that Gray’s top campaign officials gave him money orders and cash — and the promise of a city job — in exchange for his help steering votes away from then-Mayor Adrian Fenty in last year’s mayoral race, battled all day with council members.
Brown called David A. Catania (I-At Large) “delusional.” He told Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) that “you shouldn’t be a law professor.” At one point, with the audience bursting into laughter and council members absorbing one insult after another, Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), no stranger to unusual legal proceedings, said, “I’ve never been in a hearing like this before.”
In the annals of public hearings, there are archetypes that make for guaranteed must-watch viewing — the lowly truth-teller who blows the whistle on corruption, the squirming wrongdoer who struggles to say as little as possible. Brown was the classic reluctant witness — he forced the council to subpoena him before he would speak at all — but once he arrived, he alternated between combative truculence and an eagerness to talk that had council members struggling to get him to cut his answers short.
Brown spent a good chunk of the day reading e-mails and texts that appeared to bolster his story of having been paid to help the Gray campaign and then rewarded with a D.C. government job. In the end, several council members who questioned Brown concluded that his story was somehow fishy.
The shades were at least part of the basis for that skepticism.
Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) told Brown, “I’m not asking you a question and I will not ask you a question with those sunglasses on.”
In many courthouses, witnesses are expressly prohibited from hiding their eyes. In any public hearing, shades are at best inadvisable: “Sunglasses should not be worn and photosensitive glasses should be avoided,” according to a “Witness Survival Guide” put out by a company that coaches corporate executives who are called to testify at government hearings. “Do not wear sunglasses, eat or chew gum, or engage in provocative behavior,” says a law firm’s guide to preparing for a hearing.
But Brown insisted on keeping his shades on, even after Cheh, chairman of the council committee investigating the allegations of corruption in the Gray campaign, asked him to remove them.
Over the course of the past century, “sunglasses became the symbol of, pretty much in this order, the rich, the famous, the cool and the psychotic,” fashion critic Hadley Freeman wrote in her 2008 book, “The Meaning of Sunglasses.” “There is no denying that hiding one’s eyes makes onlookers uneasy.”
The idea, Freeman argues, is that by denying others the chance to look into their eyes, those who don shades — especially of the impenetrable variety that Brown chose — are trying to frighten their audience, to “cultivate hostility.”
If that was Brown’s motive — conscious or not — he succeeded splendidly.
A flustered Cheh posed the same question to Brown over and over, as the witness sat stone-faced, refusing to respond.
Catania tried to get Brown to admit that he was fine with receiving illegal campaign contributions and a city job until he got fired from that position. Brown responded by calling Catania crazy.
“Everybody can think I’m crazy,” Catania said, “but I have two jobs, Mr. Brown, and you have none.”