Like most 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 $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. A supposed incorporator of multiple organizations says her signatures were forged on the papers, and one alleged incorporator 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, the Ward 8 Workforce Development Council, the Ward 8 Health Council, the Ward 8 Youth Leadership Council, Clean and Sober, and Clean and Green. 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 for fiscal year 2009.
After revelations that Barry directed $15,000 in council money to former girlfriend Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, the creation and management of the nonprofits raise 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 longtime friend who has known Barry since moving to town in the early 1990s.
Wise has worked for both Barry’s council and campaign staffs over the years, mostly as a volunteer. Last summer, the two ran into each other at Barry’s ward office in Anacostia, as they often would. Barry had a pitch: “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, aside from some occasional catering. 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.
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 appearing 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. Wesby adds: “I’ve never signed anything by that name.”
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Where did all these groups come from?
In an interview, Barry says several of these organizations were already doing good works in his ward, under different names and on a volunteer basis. When the opportunity came to give them some city funding, he seized it. “They went through the normal process,” says the councilmember.
E-mails provided by Wise add a bit of context to Barry’s account. They indicate that 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, tells Wise that he and Barry aide Essita Holmes drafted the incorporation articles, and that Brenda Richardson was “responsible for gathering the signatures.” The $70 incorporation fee was paid for by a check from the Marion Barry Scholarship Educational Fund; it was signed by Anthony Motley, a close associate, and Donna Rouse, a member of Barry’s staff.
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.
“I’m kind of puzzled on all this,” she says. When shown the incorporation documents for each of the nonprofits bearing her name, Thomas still came up blank. “I’ve never seen these,” she says.
Though Thomas’ signature appears to match the signatures on the nonprofit incorporation forms, she says she “never signed my name or anything like that. I’d remember that,” she says. “Someone’s using my name? Oh, my Jesus.”
Thomas says her signature should appear only on sign-in sheets for various community meetings held at Barry’s ward office. She says she did volunteer work for a few months in 2008 under the direction of Richardson. “I used to work for her,” Thomas says. “She was like the supervisor. I was a volunteer helping them out.”
In late June, Thomas got a letter asking her to attend a July 13 Ward 8 Health Council board meeting at Barry’s constituent services office. Richardson penned a personal note at the top of the form letter. It reads: “Hi Pam, Councilmember Barry would be delighted if you could attend this meeting. Thanks. Brenda.” Thomas is listed as a director of the health council, a position she didn’t know she held.