D.C. City Scandals Evoke Fears of Return to Marion Barry Era
With Washington, D.C.'s local government staggering under the weight of one scandal after the next, fears are growing that the nation's capital has returned to the politically embarrassing Marion Barry era that was marked by the former mayor being sent to prison for six months after getting caught smoking crack in a hotel room.
Washington's new mayor, Vincent Gray, has been fighting allegations of corruption since he took office in January, including charges of nepotism and political payoffs.
Council chairman Kwame Brown returned a customized luxury SUV late last year following embarrassing news coverage about how it cost taxpayers $2,000 a month. On Friday, District campaign finance authorities announced they were filing a complaint against Brown's 2008 re-election committee after concluding an investigation into charges that it failed to report more than $100,000 in contributions or nearly $170,000 in spending, among other things.
Council member Harry Thomas agreed this week to give up the gavel on the powerful economic development committee amid a federal investigation into whether he misused $300,000 in city funds.
Council member Yvette Alexander is also under investigation for allegedly personally benefiting from funds earmarked for constituent services. Ted Loza, the former chief of staff to council member Jim Graham, is awaiting sentencing for taking a bribe from a taxicab representative to push legislation that would favor the industry.
And of course, there's Barry himself, who is now a member of the council and who has been dogged in recent years by tax problems and accusations of kickbacks.
"This is even worse than the Marry Barry era," said attorney William Lightfoot, a former member of the city council. "These are allegations of corruption and illegal criminal activity involving money. The conduct a decade ago was mismanagement, inefficiencies, budget gimmicks. Not illegal activity."
Former Mayor Adrian Fenty warned during his campaign last year that a Gray victory would bring back the Barry era, which brought disgrace upon the district. In 1990, Barry was caught smoking crack in an undercover sting operation that ultimately led to him being sent to prison for six months beginning in October 1991. To the surprise of the nation, Barry won election again in 1994, but a Republican-led Congress took over the city's finances, prompting Barry to opt against a run for a fifth term in 1998.
Barry's two immediate successors, Anthony Brown and Fenty, helped stabilize the city's finances and restore a measure of dignity and respect.
But Howard Croft, a former urban studies chairman at the University of the District of Columbia and an expert on D.C. politics who backed Fenty in last year's primary, told FoxNews.com that the notion that Gray has ushered a return to the Barry era "is hard to believe."
"I believe Vincent Gray is different personally," he said. "I think that it's become convenient in D.C. politics to use the specter of Marion Barry to try to motivate and energize certain groups within the city."
Croft was referring to the overwhelmingly white parts of the city that largely backed Fenty against Gray. But that support wasn't enough, as Gray won the primary in a landslide last September. He easily won the general election in November in a city that is overwhelmingly Democratic. But now minor candidate Sulaimon Brown is accusing Gray of paying him to attack Fenty during the campaign in exchange for a six-figure job in his administration. Gray also fired his chief of staff after reports surfaced that he gave city jobs to children of top officials.
Gray vehemently denies the charges.
As for the city council, most of the scandals took place last year, before Gray assumed power.
Lightfoot, who served on the council from 1989 to 1997, blamed the scandals on "attitude."
"Several council members believe because of their positions as elected officials, they are entitled to privileges and a lifestyle that ordinary citizens are not," he said.
But Croft said that while it's unusual for so many council members to be snared in scandals, he believes it's business as usual for local politics.
"American politics is rife historically with politicians abusing their authority and engaging in corrupt acts," he said. "I really don't think what's going on in D.C. is unusual in terms of local government. The difference is D.C. is always under a microscope."