WASHINGTON – One District of Columbia councilmember member pleaded guilty to stealing funds earmarked for youth sports programs. Another was accused of lying about his income on bank loan applications and is set to appear in federal court Friday morning.
The two resigned five months apart, and their departures this year — coupled with a federal probe of Mayor Vincent Gray's 2010 campaign that has already produced guilty pleas from two aides — have sent the city government into a tailspin. And the scandals likely aren't helping efforts to gain greater budget autonomy, much less win a vote for the D.C. delegate to Congress or to secure the long-sought goal of statehood.
Corrupt officials have been brought down in other cities, including Detroit and Chicago, but the problem is magnified in a city where the governing body has 13 members, effectively functions as a state legislature and operates less than three blocks from the White House.
"Whether it's resignations, investigations, whatever it is — I think it's had a very bad effect," said Councilmember Mary Cheh, now the panel's acting chair. "People are feeling demoralized, I think they're feeling disappointed."
Cheh said the pleas and investigations risk setting back the goal of gaining more autonomy for District residents.
"It certainly gives (critics) ammunition to say, 'What kind of a system are you running over there?'" she said.
Long-running investigations by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia that have rattled nerves inside the city government complex, have yielded significant developments in recent months.
On Wednesday, Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown was accused in federal court of falsifying his income by tens of thousands on bank applications for a home equity loan and for a boat. He resigned his seat following a closed-door meeting with council members and is expected to plead guilty Friday, then make another court appearance on a separate misdemeanor campaign finance violation that was also brought this week in D.C. Superior Court.
The charges comes five months after another councilmember, Harry Thomas Jr., pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $350,000 in public money earmarked for youth sports and arts program. He also resigned and was sentenced to more than three years in prison.
Last month, two former Gray campaign aides pleaded guilty to charges arising from his 2010 mayoral campaign. One aide admitted lying to the FBI about straw donations to a minor candidate in the race and the other aide admitted funneling the money and destroying evidence of the transactions. The payments were intended to keep the candidate, Sulaimon Brown, in the race so he could continue assailing then-Mayor Adrian Fenty as he sought re-election.
Gray has denied wrongdoing and has not been directly implicated. But the investigation continues and the issue has dogged the mayor since two months after he took office, when Sulaimon Brown alleged to The Washington Post that he had been paid and offered a job if Gray won.
Investigators in March also raided the home and offices of Jeffrey Thompson, a well-connected government contractor who was a major contributor to Gray's campaign and to other local officials.
"It's disheartening to say the least, especially when I had supported some of those people who are now under investigation," said Laina Aquiline, a neighborhood leader in the northwest Washington community of Columbia Heights.
There's nothing new about political scandals in the capital city, of course. Marion Barry drew national attention when, as mayor, he was caught on video smoking crack cocaine in 1990. He served six months in prison for cocaine possession. Barry staged a comeback, winning a fourth and final term as mayor, when Congress seized control of city government following years of poor fiscal stewardship. Barry returned to the council in 2004 and has kept his seat despite a 2006 conviction for failing to file tax returns for several years, as well as an arrest for allegedly stalking a former girlfriend. The charges were dropped but drew attention to a $15,000 city contract he had steered to the woman.
Barry and Gray have known each other for three decades and worked together frequently. And Barry said recently he considered himself a mentor of sorts to Brown.
Now Brown and Thomas are gone, and the investigation of city leaders continues.
The allegations come at a delicate time for the city, as district advocates have been lobbying Congress for more autonomy on fiscal affairs. Although district residents were given the freedom to elect a mayor and city council in 1973, Congress has the final say over the district's budget and laws.
Efforts to expand voting rights for the D.C. delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, have been bottled up in Congress since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2011.
Nick Jeffress, the executive director of the D.C. Republican Committee, said the scandals should make voters think extra hard about electing honest leaders who will have the clout and respect to push the statehood cause.
"We need to have that at the forefront of our minds — who are we electing and what sort of baggage might they bring," Jeffress said. "We need to focus on electing councilmembers who in turn will be able to lobby, hopefully with greater results, to Congress."
But Aquiline said she wasn't convinced the scandals would harm the movement.
"My personal hope would be that it would actually work in the opposite fashion," Aquiline said. "I actually think you would have more well-qualified citizens for such a position if we believed that our voice had any power."
Council members will meet next week to select an interim chair from among four at-large members. Cheh said the city government is still functioning and officials will work to win back trust.
But, she noted, "This is a stain on the government."