Michael Sindram, 54, regularly introduces himself at D.C. Council hearings, Advisory Neighborhood Commission meetings, and other public forums around Washington as a “disabled veteran who has served his country more than most.”
But, really, that may understate his résumé. Sindram, for instance, was among the first of 389 people to be barred from filing paupers’ petitions at the U.S. Supreme Court. He says he has also been barred from the campus of the University of the District of Columbia and, he says, from the since-closed grounds of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. For three years, he was persona non grata at the main sales office of the Washington Metro system. And, he says, there was a period when he rated an escort from D.C. Protective Services whenever he entered the Wilson Building, which he does frequently.
That’s how most Washingtonians may know Sindram. The 6-foot, 5-inch, 200-pound man with a bald head is D.C.’s most prolific public witness. When the D.C. Council mulled seemingly mundane regulatory matters, he was there. When ANC 4D, in Petworth, discussed D.C. statehood, he was there, even though he’s not a resident of that district. When ANC 3F in Cleveland Park considered a nominee for the city’s Human Rights Commission, he was there, even though he’s not a resident of that entire ward. He’s cagey about quantifying his appearances at public meetings, but a glance at the Council’s recent witness lists gives a sense of just how much Sindram the city’s elected officials are experiencing: In April, the Council held hearings on 14 days; Sindram was scheduled to testify 21 times.
In Sindram’s telling, his appearances are the basic stuff of democracy. “My mantra is the A.R.T. of good governance,” he says, wagging a finger to punctuate each letter of his homemade acronym. “Accountability, rule of law, and transparency.” His actual testimony is often somewhat more granular: He recently spoke out in favor of Elizabeth Noel’s appointment to the D.C. Public Service Commission (her candidacy was ultimately rejected) and in favor of stronger city-hall ethics laws (he thinks the recently passed legislation has major gaps). Away from the witness stand, he has a habit of asking councilmembers and government employees who wander into his path whether their actions produce “justice, or just ice.”
Ice melts in the heat, he explains.
Nearly every local political scene has someone like Sindram. His story involves long digressions into unfair speeding tickets, city agency overcharges, inaccurate tax assessments, and Americans with Disabilities Act violations. Sindram has been tenacious in fighting to get what he believes is his. His entanglement with the Supreme Court, for instance, began with a $100 speeding ticket in Dorchester County, Md. Claiming the officer lacked evidence, Sindram challenged the ticket in five different state and federal courts on 27 occasions, to no avail. So he aimed higher. From 1989 to 1991, he filed 42 petitions with the Supreme Court, all of them in forma pauperis. The justices never did take up the case of the speeding ticket, but did rule, in a 6-3 decision, that Sindram would have to pay the court’s filing fees. “[T]he Court’s order in this case appears to be nothing more than an alternative for punishing Sindram for the frequency with which he has filed petitions,” wrote Thurgood Marshall in a dissent.
But lower courts have placed similar restrictions on Sindram in years since. In April, the D.C. attorney general’s office asked the U.S. Court of Appeals to revoke Sindram’s in forma pauperis status: Last year alone, he filed 23 petitions in cases against the D.C. government, according to the attorney general’s filing. Sindram’s petitions “have diverted scarce resources,” the attorney general’s office says. Sindram disagrees—and has filed a petition against the attorney general’s request.
The system may not be granting Sindram victories. But the one thing it does offer him is a microphone. He says he first spoke at a council hearing in 2005, but can’t recall exactly what the issue was. “It probably had something to do with the Office of Human Rights,” he says. His relations with the pols who preside over hearings have been mixed. At-large Councilmember Phil Mendelson says Sindram has made a few good points during his council testimonies, though he can’t recall exactly what those points are. “Some councilmembers are afraid of him,” he says. “I think he is harmless.”
Ward 7’s Yvette Alexander has a sterner take: She recently banned Sindram from her committee office. She says two members of her staff felt threatened and uneasy by his frequent visits. “I have no problem with Mr. Sindram personally. He is very knowledgeable on the issues he cares about, but I’m going to protect my staff,” she says. Sindram says it’s payback for his having used his recent testimony to accuse Alexander of carrying Pepco’s water. She says she will revisit the ban in six months.
And it’s a good bet Sindram will be back as soon as he’s permitted. “There is no law against rocking the boat or pushing buttons,” he says. “I’m going to rock boats and push buttons. That’s my right.”