D.C. Corruption: How Far Does It Lead?

This should be an interesting, even energetic time for politics in the District of Columbia. While the lineup may not be complete, with the official announcement of Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans into the mayoral fray, there are now three council members in the race to replace Mayor Vincent Gray.

Gray himself has so far declined to say whether he will run for re-election or not. Although it’s fair to say that in normal times, he’s got a pretty good record to run on, what with a boom in population and development projects all over the city and a fat budget surplus in the kitty.

Except . . .

What is everybody—the politicos, the media, the wags in the neighborhoods—talking about? Michael Brown, the ex-at-large-Independent-Democrat councilman caught in a federal sting operation accepting money-for-influence from agents posing as small business folks. In addition, there’s a wire donation to Brown from developer Jeffrey Thompson, who, along with the mayor’s election campaign, is still being investigated by U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen, Jr., and his office for running a shadow campaign which collected more than $600,000 for the Gray campaign.

At the same time, it appeared that at-large councilman Vincent Orange was being talked to by federal investigators in relation to contributions from Thompson.

Brown pleaded guilty last week to bribery charges and admitted a relationship to Thompson and accepting an illegal contribution from him.

Corruption in D.C. politics and rumors that the ongoing federal investigations were about to heat up were the talk of the town, not the relative merits and chances of Evans, Ward 4 council member Muriel Bowser and Ward 6 council member Tommy Wells, all of whom have announced that they are running for mayor.

Wells has made a point about focusing on ethics in his campaign.

If you look at the latest developments, you can see several things happening. One of them is that to be a political blue blood in this city is no guarantee that you are safe from temptation, even if you’re electorally successful. With Michael Brown’s guilty plea, the chit chat starts all over again: what is the matter with elected officials in the District?

We’ve sat down with Michael Brown—the son of Ron Brown, President Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce, who was killed in a plane crash—and found him, as other colleagues have, to be smart and full of ideas. Kwame Brown, who resigned as chairman of the District Council, was a highly thought-of, risen-from-the-community and local-politics native son. Harry Thomas, Jr., a powerful, stirring orator and the son of a long-time council member, is serving time in prison for taking money from funds earmarked for youth programs.

All of them had the best jump starts politicians can get here—membership in successful political families and being highly regarded members of their communities. That’s a lot of political talent squandered to the interests of what can only be called venality of the sort that smacks of entitlement and arrogance.

They’re also cautionary tales about the political arena and anybody who steps foot in it. There’s always the danger that you’re going to step in it. The local list includes former Mayor Marion Barry, a man once so powerful that the media’s sarcastic honorary title of mayor for life was not that far from reality until he was toppled in spectacular fashion. Barry, now the Ward 8 council member, was one of the most gifted politicians we’ve seen around here—he had the same ability to embrace crowds and people and was as popular as Bill Clinton, who also managed to trip up spectacularly.

The list of successful politicians who’ve also entered the valley of “What-were-they-thinking?” is a long one. Local pundits are whispering that may get longer soon.

We can only cross our fingers and hope that the outcome is otherwise.

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Tue, 16 Sep 2014 17:25:43 -0400

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