EDITOR'S NOTE: Washington City Paper has published an extended version of this article, containing additional detail and a response from Marion Barry.
Like all of his colleagues on the D.C. Council, Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry has made ample use of the city's legislative earmarks—grants that politicians can steer toward their favorite nonprofit groups.
Yet few have shown Barry's mastery in funneling those earmark monies to organizations that share his agenda. City records show that Barry has directed nearly $1 million in city funds to six groups under the apparent control of his own staff. What's more striking about the arrangements is how they came about:
- Barry secured council funding for the groups in June 2008. That was five months before the groups even existed—that is, before they were properly registered with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA).
- The corporation documents appear to be marred by highly irregular representations. Two supposed incorporators of multiple organizations say their signatures were forged onto the papers, and one alleged director is a person who doesn't exist.
- The documents were drawn up by paid Barry staffers and notarized by a close political ally of Barry. The incorporation papers for each group were virtually identical, with only the group names and the names of the incorporators and corporate directors changing. A Barry associate closely oversees the operations of all the groups.
The groups have just the sort of names you'd expect from do-gooder associations: the Ward 8 Education Council [PDF], the Ward 8 Workforce Development Council [PDF], the Ward 8 Health Council [PDF], the Ward 8 Youth Leadership Council [PDF], Clean and Sober [PDF], and Clean and Green [PDF]. They were registered with the city on the same day, Oct. 29, 2008.
Each of them received $75,000—$450,000 total—in District funds.
After revelations that Barry directed $15,000 in council money to former girlfriend Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, the creation and management of the nonprofits raises additional questions about Barry's use of public funds. Under this nonprofit arrangement, he has been able to use the council's earmark allotment to effectively expand his council offices, furthering the reach of his legendary patronage.
Take, for example, how the councilmember approached Sharon Wise, a 20-year friend. They ran into each other last summer at Barry's ward office in Anacostia, where Wise had been volunteering. "He said, 'Could you use a few thousand a month?'" Wise recalls. "I said, 'Sure!'" Barry mentioned that he had "some grants coming through."
Soon enough, Wise had become project director of both Clean and Sober and the Youth Leadership Council, groups with self-explanatory missions for Barry's home turf.
Running two nonprofits was plenty of work for Wise, who has never done any work for the other nonprofits orchestrated by Barry's people. Funny thing, though: Her name and a signature are affixed to incorporation documents for three of those groups. Those signatures don't match her genuine signature.
"That's a forgery," says Wise, referring to the signature that purports to represent her on one group's incorporation papers. [See below for a comparison of the forged signatures.]
Wise says she was unaware she had been listed on the documents until DCRA mailed certified copies to her months later.
Wise also says that a name that appears on the Youth Leadership Council documents is fraudulent: A "Ms. Mercedes Wise" is listed as an incorporator of the group, residing at the same address as Sharon Wise. But there is no Mercedes Wise, she says—the name of her son, who has also done work for the group, is Theodore Mercedez Wesby. He has never used the name "Mercedes Wise."
"That's somebody that don't exist," Wise says. Says Wesby: "I've never signed anything by that name."
Who created the incorporation documents and who collected the signatures?
According to e-mails provided by Wise, paid Barry staffers and a close personal associate were in charge of the process. In an e-mail drafted Feb. 18, Drew Hubbard, Barry's committee director, told Wise that he and Barry aide Essita Holmes drafted the incorporation articles, and that Brenda Richardson was "responsible for gathering the signatures."
In addition, all of the signatures on the incorporation documents were notarized by James Bunn, a close Barry associate and chair of the Ward 8 Business Council, which is another earmark recipient, but not one directly associated with the other groups. Bunn, in an interview, says that "all the people that I notarized—they were there when the papers were signed."
On the question of discrepancies between the signature of Wise on one group to the next: "That's an issue that somebody's going to have to take over. That's the extent that I'm going to comment." And who is Mercedes Wise? "That would be her son."
Pamela Thomas, listed as an incorporator for Clean and Sober, Clean and Green, and the Youth Leadership Council, had no idea she had played such a role until a reporter informed her Friday evening.
The group names rang few bells for Thomas. "I'm kind of puzzled on all this," she says.
But Thomas is a civic-minded type; she says she's regularly participated in community meetings at Barry's ward office. And Thomas says she knows Richardson. "I used to work for her," Thomas says. "She was like the supervisor. I was a volunteer helping them out."
Her signature appears on three forms notarized by Bunn—two of the signatures are similar; the third is different. "I never signed my name or anything like that. I’d remember that," she says. "Someone’s using my name? Oh, my Jesus."
Another irregularity: The Rev. Hattie McDuffie says she joined the board of Clean and Sober "a few months ago." Yet according to DCRA documents, she was one of the founding board members appearing on the October 2008 papers.
McDuffie says there's no doubt who's in charge of Clean and Sober: Richardson. "She's the head of the whole thing," she says.
Richardson's work in setting up the groups has segued into a supervisory role. While she is not currently on the D.C. Council payroll, she is listed on Barry's council Web site as his deputy chief of staff for community engagement. She works out of Barry's ward office, at 2100 Martin Luther King Ave. SE, Suite 307—which is the same address listed on stationery for Clean and Sober and the Youth Leadership Council.
An extensive electronic trail documents Richardson's big foot in the operation of the nonprofits. On Dec. 8, Richardson sent an e-mail to the executive directors of several of the groups, saying that "all reports and other documentation must go through me" before funds are released. On Dec. 17, Richardson writes Wise to tell her that "CM Barry has required all fiscal agents and consultants to attend all monthly meetings that I have scheduled on Fridays." Her micromanagement extended to directing the councils exactly how their funds could be spent. In a Jan. 27 e-mail, Richardson says "[p]ursuant to our recent conversation with CM Barry" that she would order office supplies through Staples and that all catering would be provided by an outfit called Tasty Treats.
Contracts provided by Wise show that she was to be paid $40,000 yearly for leading Clean and Sober and an additional $25,000 to lead the Youth Leadership Council. Then, in November, she says Richardson had some news for her: Darryl Colbert, another Barry associate, would be getting $15,000 from Clean and Sober, and it would be coming out of Wise's end.
Wise said no way. Colbert would later explain in an e-mail that his role was to bring "my experience with substance abuse to the different committees." Whatever that meant to the nonprofits' mission, it meant a reduced salary for Wise: By January, her check had been cut to accommodate payments to Colbert. (Colbert could not be reached for comment.)
Unwilling to just play along with the breach of contract, Wise first appealed to Richardson, who responded, "Well, the councilmember told me to do it." So Wise called the man himself on his cell phone. His message: "If you don't like it, you can resign." A few days later, Richardson sent an e-mail to Wise that read, "The CM shared that you have resigned from both you Councils. He asked you to drop everything off at the office tomorrow."
Wise called Barry and got reinstated.
The whole situation, nonetheless, caused strains in Wise's working relationship with Richardson. She took her concerns to D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, who dispatched his budget director, Eric Goulet, to clean up the mess. (Gray declined to comment.)
Goulet convened a massive meeting that included a number of Barry staffers and loyalists. Wise recorded the meeting on her cell phone—accidentally, she says.
Toward the end of the meeting, Richardson brought up Wise's troubles with Colbert.
To that, Wise said, "Any time you...take $15,000 out of my salary that I have a contract for, hire somebody without my knowledge, and give it to them and say now they're hired, then you should tell them what their assignment is..."
"The councilmember did that," Richardson says, according to the tape recording. "The councilmember did that!"
Goulet reacted immediately: "OK, I'm not hearing that." His deputy, Justin Constantino, chimed in: "I do not want to hear that." The council officials were wincing because it's improper for a councilmember to direct the spending of a nonprofit.
Said Goulet: "We've moved beyond the ideal of how this should work. I'm glad this is not on tape right now...but the councilmember should not be directly making decisions about these grant agreements."
The meeting did nothing for Wise. By late April, she had been fired from both groups under disputed circumstances. Richardson and others allege that she has kept a computer meant for the nonprofits' use; Wise says she's owed more than $10,000 and is keeping the computer toward that balance. On Monday, Wise plans to testify at a council hearing held by Councilmember David A. Catania on nonprofit funding.
How the groups are funded is one thing. Another is: What do they do?
Documentary evidence on that front right now is thin. Since the groups haven't even completed one year of operations, they are months away from having to file disclosure forms with the IRS, which would provide a window on their expenditures and activities.
Nor are the nonprofits' executives much help. Lysandra Lawrence, who is on the board of directors of the Ward 8 Education Council, says, "We have a lot of missions. We have bylaws. We do have a mission and purpose. We have our initial goals to work with parents in the wards and schools." Anthony Motley, on the board of the Workforce Development Council, says, "I know that we are a collaboration of organizations working to identify work opportunities and training for Ward 8 residents. We don't train as far as I know. What we do is work with other organizations to do the training. I know that we've helped hundreds."
Millicent Williams, an official who oversees monies that flow to youth-oriented nonprofits, says the Youth Leadership Council and the Workforce Development Council had to submit extensive documentation before getting funds and that the trust has done "extensive monitoring," including a financial audit of the Youth Leadership Council. "They are, in fact, quite in compliance," she says.
Those words should please defenders of the council's earmark program, which continues to roll the pork barrel out to the District's hinterlands. In the budget year starting this October, Barry-created groups Clean and Green, Clean and Sober, the Youth Leadership Council, and the Education Council each will receive another $75,000; the Workforce Development Council will get $200,000.
In all, the D.C. council has voted to give $950,000 to these groups.
Barry spokesperson Natalie Williams declined to comment on the councilmember's handling of the nonprofits.
Additional reporting by Jason Cherkis and Erik Wemple