Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, as his four decades in public life have taught the District of Columbia, has always been a guy who does things on his own schedule.
• Exhibit A: Press conferences, events, appointments. As mayor and councilmember, Barry has displayed an insouciant approach to punctuality, to the point that 30 to 40 minutes late is known as “Barry time.”
• Exhibit B: Taxes. All told, Barry has failed to file timely federal tax returns for eight of the past nine years; prosecutors recently asked a judge to throw him in jail for his most recent lapse (2007’s Form 1040).
• Exhibit C: Campaign finance obligations. According to several of his creditors, Barry has yet to shell out for thousands of dollars in services they rendered toward the councilmember’s successful 2008 re-election.
A December campaign finance report shows that Barry’s campaign carried nearly $55,000 in debt more than a month after he won re-election.
Since then, at least a few folks have been paid—Traci Morris, who set up phones and computers for the campaign, says she’s been paid the $1,683 she was owed back in December. “We’re one of the lucky ones, I guess,” she says.
Plenty of others haven’t been so lucky. That goes, for instance, for KNI Communications, a Chicago-based voter-contact firm that did robocalls for Barry. An employee of the firm who wished not to be identified says his enterprise is still owed $2,239. “I’ve talked to everybody over there. It’s pretty clear how and when and how much to pay lies with Marion, so I certainly don’t want to impugn any of his staff members,” the employee says.
An employee at Advertising, Premiums & Incentives, a Lanham, Md., marketing firm, told LL that a $7,609 bill for printed materials “as far as I know…has not been paid.” Capital Community News, publisher of East of the River and other neighborhood papers, is still owed $1,150 for ads, according to the company.
Even some of Barry’s closest confidants are still waiting for payment. The Rev. Anthony Motley, a well-paid campaign consultant and Barry’s spiritual adviser these days, is owed more than $9,800, according to the December records. Sandy Allen, the former Ward 8 councilmember Barry vanquished in 2004, says she’s owed more than $1,500 for her work on the Barry campaign.
But, Allen told LL, “I’m anticipating Mr. Barry having a debt-retirement party to raise funds to clean up all this.” That party, she says, has yet to be scheduled, due to Barry’s health.
Yes—as with the tax situation, an impending kidney transplant, first revealed in an interview last week with WUSA-TV’s Bruce Johnson, is bearing the blame for Barry’s financial failings.
Says a Barry confidante, “The whole kidney thing has derailed a lot of things. I think his whole mindset has been to think about, I’ve got to survive this.…I think you’re going to see a different guy when this is all over.”
In fairness, Barry is not the only candidate who has to pay folks back. Kwame Brown, for instance, still owes $22,000 to his political consultants in a campaign where he raised $664,000. Michael A. Brown held a Jan. 27 debt retirement fundraiser at the home of Debra Lee, BET’s chief executive; Brown says he’s not quite out of the woods yet, but he can probably take his time: Records indicate his main creditor is himself.
But hold on a second: In his 2008 race, Barry faced no meaningful opposition, unless you count perennial also-ran Sandra “S.S.” Seegars or five other similarly worthy opponents. To beat back the nonexistent competition, Barry raised $277,000, or more than six times the collective $43,000 his opponents raised. Other lightly opposed ward councilmembers—see Jack Evans ($672,939) or Muriel Bowser ($402,097)—emerged debt-free.
Barry used the money in what can only be termed a visionary way. Long before people in Washington were calling for stimulus packages, Barry was doling one out in Ward 8.
Take a look at his workforce investments. According to campaign finance records, individuals working for Barry’s re-election collected just shy of $160,000 for “consultant” fees and “salary/stipend.” That represents fully 60 percent of Barry’s campaign spending. Campaign manager Hakim Sutton alone pocketed nearly $50,000; Motley made just over $10,000, and Allen made $11,750. At least a dozen others collected lesser amounts.
Andre Johnson, Barry’s spokesperson, promises all debts will be paid. “Like any campaign, the money does run out at times,” he says. “His thing is that he’s not going to leave anyone high and dry.”
Kicked to the PERB
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has taken a beating in the press for some of his board-and-commission appointments. For instance, last week he decided to withdraw the nomination of family friend Lori “Missy” Lee to chair the Public Service Commission. A day later, the Washington Examiner’s Michael Neibauer revealed that Fenty had nominated two of his triathlon-training pals to other city boards.
As yet unexamined, however, is his longstanding finagling with the Public Employee Relations Board, in whose operations Fenty has displayed a degree of stubbornness unusual even for him.
So LL examines!
The PERB is the main city body that deals with conflicts between the city, its employees, and their unions. It’s considered a “quasi-judicial” board that hears different types of cases and issues rulings that can be reviewed by the District courts. The board has traditionally done a very good job: Historically, less than 10 percent of the board’s decisions are overturned on appeal.
That’s because the standards for board service are high. Under District law, members of the board shall “through their experience have demonstrated an expert knowledge of the field of labor relations.” Furthermore, the statute reads, “[e]very effort shall be made to select members who have experience in public sector labor relations and preference shall be given to such persons in the Mayor’s appointments to the Board.”
In recent months, the PERB has maintained its top-notch record—but that’s because the board’s essentially ceased to function. Since last June, the majority of slots of the five-member board have been vacant, meaning the board can’t call a quorum and conduct business. A body that usually clears about a half-dozen cases per month now has a backlog of about 60 cases.
It’s not that Fenty hasn’t tried filling the board; it’s who he’s tried to fill the board with. Of nine candidates nominated to the PERB in the past two years, only one has been confirmed by the D.C. Council. The issue? None of the unconfirmed nominees show any special expertise in labor relations, let alone expertise in dealing with public employees and their unions. The latest crop, submitted just after New Year’s, includes:
• Darryl Wiggins, a longstanding political adviser to Fenty
• James Byles, principal of a local advertising firm who also happens to run triathlons with Fenty
• Diaa Nour, who runs a Hyattsville-based call center with brother Omar Nour—the training buddy Fenty just nominated to the Board of Elections and Ethics
• Brenda J. Oliver, an immigration lawyer at Fulbright & Jaworski, who’s probably the most qualified of the group, though that’s no huge feat. She’s also married to Fenty’s general counsel, Chip Richardson.
But submitting another passel of thinly qualified nominees represents a whole lot of wishful thinking on Fenty’s part. When former At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz had PERB oversight, she held a hearing on Byles and Oliver but refused to move any further on Fenty’s nominees, citing their lack of qualifications. Needless to say, reps from public employee unions cried foul over the appointments.
Attorney General Peter Nickles says the executive experience of Byles, Nour, and Wiggins meets the legal standards. “When you’re CEO, one of the things you’ve got to deal with...is how to deal with labor, whether its unionized or nonunionized, how to keep peace and be fair.”
And, he added, “I think it’s important to bring fresh faces.”
The nominations are now in the hands of Ward 3 Councilmember Mary M. Cheh, who has thus far shown little patience with underqualified nominees—she took, for instance, very little mercy in questioning Lee during a December hearing on her nomination.
Cheh says she’s thus far kept an open mind: “This is a particular board that has statutory requirements. I’ve asked each nominee to identify specifically how they will meet those requirements.”
Crime & Admonishment
At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson can’t get no respect.
Chairing a D.C. Council committee, as Mendelson does, buys a councilmember a fairly enormous amount of power to control the flow of legislation through that panel. It’s a source of power a committee chair can use to horse-trade for his own pet legislation and other political favors.
Last week, one of Mendo’s colleagues failed to respect his authoritah.
The tête-à-tête was sparked by Fenty’s submission of a sprawling crime bill last week. A bit of history: Fenty had submitted a similar bill the previous fall, and Mendelson, in the view of Hizzoner and supporters, failed to treat the legislation with the requisite haste.
Says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, “He was dragging his feet.”
When Fenty submitted his new bill last week, Evans says he tried to feel Mendelson out on his intentions to get moving; Fenty and Nickles have expressed a desire to have the bill ready before the traditional summer hike in crime. In his conversations with Mendelson, Evans says, “He was very cavalier about it.…‘I’ll get to it when I get to it.’”
So Evans made a rare, bold move: Before the bill was even sent to the public safety and judiciary committee, he sent Mendelson a letter asking him to get moving, and he got the three other members of the panel—Cheh, Yvette Alexander, and Muriel Bowser—to sign it. “[W]e are writing to request you promptly schedule a hearing within the next 30 days,” the letter read. “We look forward to working with you on this important bill, and moving it through the legislative process in an expeditious matter.”
Mendo, council sources tell LL, was livid.
And this is how Mendo described his reaction: “I think it’s very strange for a member to urge another member to do something as if the other member is unwilling to do it.”
Mendelson says he’s far from unwilling: Before he even received the Evans letter, he says, he’d scheduled a hearing for March 18.
In a memo responding to Evans et al.’s letter, he delivered this shot: “Please explain the necessity of taking the extraordinary step to write, and urging our colleagues to co-sign, when the bill has not even circulated. A simple follow-up conversation with me would have informed you of the schedule.”
Evans says his move wasn’t a breach of protocol: “The committee chair is first among equals but we are all members of the committee.…In my committee if I have a majority of the members who want to move forward, we sit down and work it out.”
What explains all the cattiness over crime? Well, one way to interpret the politics at play here is to look at the crime bill as a first salvo in a Fenty attack at a Mendelson 2010 re-election bid. After all, Hizzoner has to be thinking about ways to sideline one of his most persistent critics—a guy like Mendo, who won an eight-ward victory in 2006 against a well-financed challenger, might seem pretty untouchable, but painting him as a soft-on-crime obstructionist could soften him up a bit.
Mendelson says he doesn’t buy that; the same issue came up in 2006, he points out, after Mayor Anthony A. Williams proposed a wide-ranging crime bill that included youth curfews. “You couldn’t get any closer to the primary election,” Mendelson says. “As uncomfortable as the politics could become, the experience in 2006 shows me voters are more interested in the best legislation.”
Good point—and, if memory serves, there was one other councilmember enmeshed in a campaign who was even more stridently against that crime bill: the Ward 4 Councilmember at the time, Adrian Fenty.
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