Marion Barry likes his girlfriends to work on reducing poverty.
The Ward 8 councilmember was arrested on July 4 for allegedly stalking his estranged girlfriend Donna Watts-Brighthaupt. Public documents later revealed that Barry had arranged for a $5,000-per-month contract for Watts-Brighthaupt to work on an anti-poverty project.
A similar pattern played out with a Barry girlfriend who preceded Watts-Brighthaupt.
Sharon L. Bowen of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, also saw her personal ties with Barry blur into a professional relationship in 2007, with tens of thousands of dollars in public money at stake.
Like Watts-Brighthaupt, Bowen was tasked to work in the area of poverty research. According to her personal-services contract with the District, Bowen was paid to “conceptualize, design, plan and execute” a poverty summit for the council’s housing and urban affairs committee, which Barry chairs.
Bowen was paid $5,000 per month for her services. Records indicate she was paid $50,000 total between June 2007 and April 2008. Watts-Brighthaupt made $15,000.
According to four sources with knowledge of the situation, Bowen was also Barry’s girlfriend at the time.
Sharon Wise, who headed up nonprofits formed by Barry and worked with Bowen out of his Anacostia ward office, says the relationship got to the point that “she was calling herself Sharon Barry.” (Though Barry's still married to Cora Masters, the two have been estranged for years.)
Who is Sharon Bowen?
Currently residing in a suburb of Columbus, she is the widow of William F. Bowen, a powerful state senator from Cincinnati who died in 1999. People who have met Bowen describe her in similar terms: “a class act.”
It is unclear how Barry and Bowen met, but in early 2007, Bowen knew Barry well enough to get a consulting contract under her corporate moniker, the Bowen Group LLC (motto: “Beyond the Expected”).
That same year, source says, Bowen was staying with her daughter, Shawnda N. Wilkinson, a marketing and PR consultant who lives in Potomac.
Reached by phone, Wilkinson refused to shed light on how her mother ended up working in Ward 8. “I have no idea,” she said. Asked if her mother had a relationship with Barry, Wilkinson replied: “I don’t have any comment. I’m not interested in having any conversation with you.”
Washington City Paper, over the past month, has placed dozens of calls to Bowen. None have been returned.
Bowen’s initial agreement lists her various duties as including working closely with the office of Carol Schwartz then an at-large councilmember, attending meetings regarding the poverty summit, developing a strong working relationship with the Ward 8 Business Council, submitting reports and materials on deadline, and ensuring “that the vision of Councilmember Marion Barry is fulfilled.”
At some point, Bowen’s job expanded to include more than planning a poverty summit. In the fall 2007, according to Bowen’s own documents, she described her job as “Public Relations and Out Reach Services” for work with the Ward 8 Business Council “to mobilize and promote clean-up and pride in Ward 8 and Poverty Summit.”
Documentation of Bowen’s role in organizing that event is hard to come by. Documents provided to Washington City Paper through an open-records request did not contain documentation of Bowen’s work beyond brief monthly invoices that she had submitted.
As for her other work, James Bunn, executive director of the Ward 8 Business Council, remembers Bowen being tasked with going door-to-door to identify area businesses.
Of Bowen’s $5,000 per month gig, Bunn says: “It’s not a rocket science.”
If Bowen wrote up a report of her findings, Bunn says, he never saw one, nor does he recall the Ward 8 Business Council receiving one. He adds that he has no knowledge of her contracts. And he certainly has no knowledge that the two were dating. “That’s not one of my privileges,” Bunn says.
Schwartz doesn’t recall any contact with Bowen: “To my knowledge she did not work at all with us,” the former councilmember says. “Councilmember Barry had asked that we work on the poverty summit, but I don’t think we ended up doing that.”
Sources do recall Bowen’s role as a Barry companion. She made appearances with the councilmember at various functions around the District, including a Board of Trade dinner honoring the District’s mayors. Washington Life magazine photographed Bowen with Barry and Barry’s likeness at Madame Tussauds unveiling of the wax councilmember in October 2007.
“She drove him around like Donna [Watts-Brighthaupt] did,” says a source. “Everything Donna Watts did, Sharon did before....She was known as the girlfriend.”
Watts-Brighthaupt had met Barry at his campaign kickoff event in June 2008. The two soon began a tumultuous relationship that also involved contract work. City records show Watts-Brighthaupt earned $600 for driving Barry around during the campaign. She later earned another $15,000 in contract work on an emerging leaders program—an arrangement that is not illegal under District law and council rules. That relationship had begun just as the Bowen–Barry partnership had come to an abrupt ending.
In April 2008, Barry had agreed to extend Bowen’s contract through the following September. Bowen signed a new personal services contract that varied slightly from her previous contract. It stipulated that she would “develop and execute an aggressive and solid plan to work closely with the Ward 8 Business Council.” It also required Bowen to work with Bunn to “help mobilize the Ward 8 merchants” and “make on-site visits to solicit support to help fix up and clean up the community.”
For the first month of the contract—May 2008—Bowen, as before, was to receive $5,000 for such work. But by June, Bowen’s work apparently had come to an end.
In a letter to Barry dated June 16, 2008, Bowen wrote that she was terminating her contract because she had not received her payment for her May work.
Bowen explained that on the week of May 28, she had been informed by Bernadette Tolson, Barry’s chief of staff, that there were issues with her contract “regarding the budget.”
“I was shocked because I thought that everything had been worked out,” Bowen wrote. “Ms. Tolson said that she was going to speak with you and try to get it worked out and get back with me. To date, I have not had the courtesy of a phone call or any correspondence regarding this matter.”
Bowen went on to detail her devotion to her various projects: “I worked many hours each day at your constituent office, attended meetings both during the day and evenings, developed a data base for the Ward 8 merchants, visited Ward 8 businesses, got pledge cards signed and did a considerable amount of work on initiatives with Mr. Bunn and the Ward 8 Business Council.” She closes: “Mr. Barry, I truly appreciate the opportunity to work with you on the Poverty Summit, the Ward 8 Business Council and other Economic and Business Development initiatives. I wish you good health and much success in all your endeavors.”
Perhaps budgetary concerns led to Bowen’s dismissal. Here’s another account, from a source familiar with Bowen’s work for Barry: “The relationship ended and he cut her off.”
In an interview, Tolson vaguely recalls Bowen. “I know that she helped with the poverty summit,” she says. “But I don’t know about the quality of her work…I know what everybody else does that’s because they were doing the work. She was just around for a little bit.”
Asked whether Bowen had a relationship with Barry, she said: “I can’t speak to that. That was really before my time. I just don’t know. When I saw her, it was always in a very professional kind of setting.”
Whatever issue there was with Bowen’s contract, Tolson says, “it must have been worked out.” But Tolson does not recall seeing Bowen working in Barry’s office after that May.
In an interview last month, Barry defended his contracts with Bowen as proper, saying that “whatever she got, she worked for it.” The lack of a paper trail documenting her work doesn’t concern him. “Every contract does not require a work product,” he says.
And he denied having a romantic relationship with Bowen: “I resent these implications that if I got out with a lady that there's something personal going on,” Barry said, referring to their public appearances together.
“She and I got no personal relationship,” he continued. “I got a lot of enemies out here. They make up stuff, and they spread rumors, they insinuate things....I urge you to take things with a grain of salt.”