Ron Brown’s dealings in District matters were part of several probes during the Clinton era. Then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno launched a special investigation into Brown’s financial ties to Nolanda Hill, a flamboyant Texas millionaire who would later plead guilty to tax evasion. Hill, a close confidante of Brown’s, told the New Yorker in 1997 that when Brown was at Patton Boggs, he offered his connections with District officials to “grease the problems” she was having getting permission to build a new transmission tower for her television station.
The special investigation into Hill’s business dealings with Ron Brown expanded to include Michael Brown and whether he’d been part of a scheme by a pair of Democratic fundraisers, Gene and Nora Lum, to improperly influence his father. The Lums placed Michael Brown on the board of an Oklahoma natural-gas-pipeline company, and “although he did little work for the Lums, [Michael Brown] was given company stock and paid $150,000 and a country club membership worth $60,000,” according to a U.S. House report.
The special investigation into Ron Brown ended without reporting any conclusions when Brown died. But materials from the investigation were turned over to the Justice Department’s public-integrity unit, and in 1997 Michael Brown pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor election-law charge for exceeding the legal donation limit with contributions to Sen. Ted Kennedy. Prosecutors said Brown exceeded campaign contribution maximums by giving in other people’s names and was reimbursed for the $5,000 total he gave the Kennedy campaign by the Lums’ gas company. Brown says he doesn’t recall being part of any investigation into his father, and says that he voluntarily reported his campaign contribution misdeeds to the Justice Department.
Those legal problems have proved little more than minor embarrassments in Brown’s local political career. A year after his guilty plea in 1997, he was being pressured to run for mayor. And last year, Michael D. Brown, a pudgy white man who’s quite possibly Michael A. Brown’s literal physical opposite, did surprisingly well in the at-large council primary—apparently because many voters confused him with Ron Brown’s son.
Brown has also faced problems of a different nature. This year he’s become the target of the Washington Post’s opinion writers, who questioned his integrity and industry ties after he pushed through legislation that legalized online gambling in the District but received little public scrutiny before being passed into law. Brown says he’s being unfairly attacked over a legitimate policy debate, partly because he’s African American. But he hasn’t helped his case by being cavalier about the whole thing, telling reporters there was nothing wrong with accepting bundled donations from businessmen connected to the lottery because that’s what developers do all the time.
The messy intersection of connections, politics, and money almost undid Ron Brown’s career before his death. But his son hasn’t shied away from it.
Will there be a third generation of legacy pols? The forecast looks murky.
The more immediate question is about the legacy legislators’ own futures. If Kwame Brown and Harry Thomas Jr. survive their brushes with the feds, will they still have enough support in three years to be re-elected or elected to higher office? And what sort of impact will the Post’s editorial condemnations have when Michael Brown next seeks office as an independent?
On the first question, there may be reason to hope for Brown and Thomas. Only three councilmembers, David Catania, Mary Cheh, and Tommy Wells, have called for Thomas’ resignation. It’s hard not to notice that all three are white and were born somewhere outside the District—just like every one of the council’s white elected officials.
But the fact that said demographic is growing fast as a proportion of the District electorate is a bigger problem down the line. Leaving aside the ideological differences between often affluent newcomers and the black middle-class voters who dominated the first four decades of home rule, newcomers just don’t know the history that might make them admire a family name.
In the meantime, though, family still matters. Kevin B. Chavous, 26, recently announced his candidacy to fill the Ward 7 council seat previously held by his father, Kevin. P. Chavous. And just look at who’s keeping quiet about Thomas’ troubles: a population that includes even Vincent Orange, a man who’s battled the older generation of the Thomas family as well as the younger generation of the Brown family. Those keeping quiet do so for a number of reasons, one of which is that Thomas isn’t just part of his own family (“I have confidence and faith, because I know what kind of foundation I laid for that child,” says Romaine Thomas), but also part of a larger political family.
“If a family member messes up, you still support them. You may not support what they did, but you support them as a family member,” says Michael Brown. “Even if they did something fucked-up.”