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.”
It’s 10:10 a.m. on a rainy April Wednesday as Sindram completes the first of four statements he will deliver that day before city officials. Wearing a blue-and-gray-striped rugby shirt and jeans, he goes through his boilerplate introduction—“My name is Michael Sindram, a disabled veteran who has served his country more than most”—then launches into complaints about rising Metro fares, holding up articles from the Washington Examiner to emphasize his points. Like many of her colleagues, Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser, who’s chairing the morning’s budget oversight hearing, lets Sindram testify first, presumably reasoning that once he’s finished, she can get down to business. Bowser sits stone-faced as her constituent speaks out.
Between his committee appearances, Sindram makes the rounds of the Wilson Building. He asks several councilmembers’ receptionists if he can use the office photocopier to make duplicates of his latest complaints; only Vincent Orange’s office grants him the favor. Other bureaucrats welcome him and trade gossip. He greets most people by first name—including the D.C. Protective Services officers who, he says, used to watch him, and someone named Juan from the mailroom. “He’s a great guy,” Juan says.
Sindram huddles with Aquarius Vann-Ghasri, who serves on the D.C. Housing Authority’s board of commissioners. He gets the latest news on the Potomac Gardens public housing complex, where Vann-Ghasri lives and Sindram once worked with children as a church volunteer. “Michael Sindram is a passionate voice for the people. I think too many people judge him by his appearance, not by his message,” she says.
Sindram shakes hands with Kevin Wrege, a D.C. lobbyist, who we meet in the hall. I ask Wrege if Sindram is an effective advocate. “Everyone knows him,” Wrege says. “But I don’t know what he is advocating for.”
From the Wilson Building, Sindram and I head to One Judiciary Square so he can testify before a D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics meeting. He usually rides a gray, worn-out 10-speed bike and carries a red backpack filled with documents and newspaper clippings. Since I’m on foot, we walk together down drizzly Pennsylvania Avenue. Today, he’s incensed about Mendelson, who voted against Noel’s appointment to the public service board. Sindram thinks Mendelson should have recused himself because he owns stock in Pepco, according to his latest financial disclosure statement. The utility company opposes Noel’s appointment. “Mendelson has alienated an ally,” he says repeatedly.
Sindram breezes through the metal detectors at One Judiciary Square as he banters with a female security guard. My belt buckle, however, sets off the alarm. “You are slowing my roll,” Sindram says, miffed that he may miss an opportunity to testify before the elections board, where he attends nearly every meeting. We arrive as activist Dorothy Brizill wraps up her statements. Sindram tells the board about his concerns that recent ethics legislation passed by the council creates a gap in public disclosure. “My spirit is vexed,” he says, using a Sindram catch-phrase.
After the meeting, Sindram mingles with board members. As is his habit, he hands over supplemental materials—some of them related to his testimony, others not. Over the course of our talks, he has presented me with several issues of VFW magazine, the VVA Veteran, a photo book commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Vietnam War Memorial, the spring edition of the Our Daily Bread prayer book, and copies of the free conservative weekly Human Events (“It’s a great newspaper,” he says). He’s also shared enough highlighted clippings from the Washington Examiner and Washington Informer to fill a scrapbook. Once, I mentioned to him that I wanted to get into shape. At our next meeting, he gave me a herbal medicine guide and a naturopathic heart health handbook.
Before we break for lunch, Sindram asks if we can stop by the Metro sales office. He says Metro barred him from the sales office from 2007 to 2010 after he complained that his backpack had been stolen when he left it by the counter window. Today’s visit leads to a small victory: Sindram gets a refund for a demagnetized Metro farecard he pulls from a five-inch stack of cards in his current backpack. He says he collected the farecards during his three-year exile from the sales office, but Metro only allows him to cash in one card per day. We agree to regroup at the Wilson Building for more council testimony in the afternoon. He leaves to meet with the D.C. tax assessor’s office to discuss the status of his bankruptcy, which he filed for in 2008.
But before the next hearing, there’s a snag. A long queue of witnesses is supposed to testify at Councilmember Michael Brown’s hearing on affordable housing. Sindram doesn’t like to wait, so he leaves, heading back down the hall to testify before a different Bowser-led committee. When that’s done, he suggests we swing by the Office of Neighborhood Engagement, where he wants to check in with some contacts. It’s getting late and Sindram is limping up the stairs. We pass an empty conference room with the light on. Sindram turns it off. “Another example of government waste,” he shrugs. Then we wait in the lobby of Orange’s office to attempt an unscheduled meeting with an aide that never happens.
Sindram wants to end our day at a Log Cabin Republicans meeting where D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier is scheduled to speak. But on the way out of the Wilson Building, we run into Lanier. “We love Mike,” Lanier tells me as Sindram asks for updates on crime in his neighborhood. Since we’ve seen the chief, enthusiasm for trekking to the meeting starts to ebb.
I invite Sindram to a book reading—Drop Dead Healthy by humorist A.J. Jacobs—at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. I have an extra ticket. I’m also curious to observe how Sindram behaves at a non-political event. I suggest we grab dinner before the reading. I ask Sindram to pick a place. He likes Chipotle. As we walk to the restaurant, Sindram pokes his finger in the slots of the parking meter kiosks. At Chipotle, I order a chicken burrito. Sindram, a vegan, says that chickens eat their own feces.
Sindram can’t stop ragging on the D.C. Council. Even as we wait for the reading to begin, he rants about “poli-tricks, not politics,” with brief interludes about the values of a vegan diet. But when the humorist takes the stage, Sindram belts out a few hearty laughs. When the night ends, he thanks me for the ticket, hops on his bike, and rides back home to Brightwood.
Sindram lives in a brick condominium on Georgia Avenue. Discarded mail and newspapers fill the corners of his building’s lobby. A poorly plastered-over hole, which Sindram claims was made by a bullet from a shooting, marks a wall. I visit his third-floor apartment. The door is wide open. Inside, Sindram is only in his running shorts, complaining on the phone to police that he was hassled by a security guard while gathering food donations for the Vietnam Veterans of America. He gestures for me to wait. I stand outside, and he emerges wearing a pink collared, short-sleeved shirt, shorts, and black tennis shoes with tiny white crosses on the heels.
Sindram’s condo is less cluttered than his backpack. There’s a desk with a computer, phone, and printer. A water distiller, a small flat-screen television, and bookshelves made of black milk crates round out the furnishings. He has no bed. He says that he sleeps on the floor and that beds are bad for people’s backs. He runs electricity one circuit at a time to keep his Pepco bill low and unplugs his appliances when he’s not using them. He prefers to talk in Battleground National Cemetery next door.
But first, he wants to give me a tour of the building.
Unsurprisingly, where he lives has been the subject of a certain amount of acrimony between Sindram and the city. In a basement that reeks of sewage, he leads me to a locked plywood door and hands me a 2008 settlement agreement from the D.C. Office of Human Rights that says the condo building has until Feb. 8, 2009 to establish a building office. Sindram says the space behind the locked door is supposed to be that office. (Tenacity Group, whose Cap City Management division manages the complex, declined to comment; Cap City maintains an office for the building elsewhere, which the firm believes puts it in compliance with the settlement.) A D.C. court convicted Sindram of attempted stalking of his building’s manager. Sindram claims he is innocent and says the manager’s testimony against him was retaliation for his numerous complaints about the building. Of course, Sindram is appealing his case.
Under an oak tree in the graveyard, Sindram tells me about himself. Son of a locksmith and a homemaker, Sindram was born in Rochester, N.Y. His parents divorced when he was a teenager. Sindram says he was basically on his own at age 14 and lived with family friends and at the YMCA. He rarely speaks with his two younger sisters. After high school in 1978, he joined the 98th Division of the Army Reserves. He spent about a year in training, first in Fort Dix, N.J., and at jump school at Fort Benning, Ga. He has a scar on his right knee that he says was from a surgery to repair an injury he sustained on his last of five parachute jumps. “It was very windy that day,” he says. “I landed hard.” Sindram still served weekends with the reserves. He was a mortar man with an E-5 pay grade who was honorably discharged in 1985. He did not do any combat duty.
Sindram first came to the D.C. area in 1981. Although he didn’t have a college degree, he had won a scholarship to study government through a summer internship at Georgetown University’s Engalitcheff Institute on Comparative Political and Economic Systems. After the internship, he ditched his studies. “Coming to the Chocolate City, I was like a kid in a candy store,” he says. “A lot of skirts to chase.” He worked as a bouncer and legal researcher for defense lawyers. In 1989, as part of his paupers’ petition with the Supreme Court, he signed an affidavit saying he only earned $2,600 per year and had no assets of any value.
In the mid-1990s, Sindram was convicted of four counts of mail fraud, a conviction he is still trying to appeal. Sindram was convicted of stealing more than $82,000 by ordering goods, mostly books, through the mail under false names without paying the vendors. According to court records, Sindram received more than 100 parcels per week at two post office boxes in Colesville, Md. When postal inspectors searched his apartment and car, they seized stacks of books, unpaid invoices and $15,500 cash in $100 bills. Sindram testified that he ordered heavy books by mail to punish the postal service for closing his first post office box. “I intended to pay for the goods I ordered. It was an act of civil disobedience,” he says. “I felt that I had no rights because I was shut out of the courts. ”
The court sentenced him to 41 months in federal prison; he got out in 36 months on good behavior. “I did more time than [former Councilmember] Harry Thomas will do,” he says, referencing the disgraced ex-councilmember who was recently sentenced to 38 months for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from youth programs.
After he left prison, Sindram moved back to D.C. He says he was homeless for a spell. After he began collecting disability benefits in 2001, he was able to get an apartment. And he decided to get his degree, too. Winning scholarships and grants, he attended Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University) and Howard University before earning his degree in government and politics from the University of Maryland in 2005. He later studied at Washington Bible College and pursued a law degree at the University of the District of Columbia. He showed me his Howard and UDC transcripts: He earned straight As.
But he also filed Americans with Disabilities Act complaints against every university he has attended. “The closest thing to a communist entity is a college or university,” he says.
What makes Sindram do battle? At one point, after he was banned from UDC’s campus for allegations of threatening faculty members, he says the school sought to have him go to anger management classes. Instead, in 2007, Sindram went to a psychiatrist at the D.C.’s Veterans Affairs medical center to get a letter. The document says Sindram “has no history of violence against self or others” and “there is no pervasive pattern or other inappropriate behavior.” Over the years, he’s shared the letter with D.C. Councilmembers and the Office of Human Rights.
The letter attesting to Sindram’s behavior, though, doesn’t get at a more basic question: Compulsively testifying at every hearing, meeting, forum, and roundtable is not something most citizens do. On that, Sindram is uncharacteristically terse: “It’s my right,” he says.
Cut through the calls for good governance, you’ll find a lot of Sindram’s complaints are personal. He says his greatest victory was when Mayor Vince Gray, then a councilmember, helped him get a $3,442 reimbursement from Medicaid for dental implants following a 1992 bike accident that knocked out his front teeth. But the losses outweigh the wins. For instance, he is still angry that the D.C. Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking has failed to investigate his 2007 complaint that he lost more than $400 on the untimely sale of five shares of Gannett stock.
After prison, Sindram also found comfort and direction in religion. He attended the Capitol Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church and volunteered at Potomac Gardens. Teenagers at the public-housing complex still refer to Sindram as “Mister Mike” and remember him taking them to the National Zoo and the Smithsonian as kids. He says he now shuns organized religion and worships privately, reading from a camouflaged pocket Bible. He includes Bible verses and prayers in his communications with the council and the courts. For instance, a few verses from the fifth chapter of Amos appeared in one of his recent court filings. “Seek good, not evil, that you may live,” he wrote in a May 5 letter to U.S. Court of Appeals requesting that counsel be appointed to represent him in his numerous cases before the court. “Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is. Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.”
Religion has influenced Sindram’s policy views, too. He regularly testifies that the D.C. Council should support a referendum on gay marriage, which he thinks the voters would reject. Not that a legislative win will matter much under Sindram’s logic because he believes we are living in the end times. “The sun is setting and time is drawing nigh. The Lord is soon to return,” he says.
All the same, Sindram reaches out to unlikely allies. He attended the May meeting of ANC 3F to lobby Alexandra Beninda, one of two transgender activists nominated to the human rights commission by Gray, to hear his complaints about the Office of Human Rights. He later testified in Beninda’s favor at a May 23 confirmation hearing chaired by Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry. Sindram missed his initial time to testify, but Barry gave him another opportunity. “I’m feeling generous today, so why don’t you go ahead and testify. Limit it to three minutes,” Barry told Sindram.
He hasn’t always given Sindram leeway. On March 30, 2011, Sindram filed a petition for a temporary restraining order against Barry claiming the councilmember and former D.C. mayor discriminated against him by not letting him speak at Committee on Aging and Community Affairs hearings. A D.C. court dismissed Sindram’s petition.
But Sindram, often the only public witness at D.C. Council meetings and ANC hearings, has his fans among those who listen to testimony. Joseph Vaughan, the ANC 4C chair, echoes what many have told me about D.C.’s most frequent witness: “The city would be a better place if more people were as passionate about the issues as Mr. Sindram.” Vaughan applauds Sindram’s efforts to help local veterans and says that he occasionally brings important topics to the attention of his ANC, such as the D.C. Council’s rejection of Noel. He does say Sindram would accomplish more if he stayed on topic and cut the sarcasm from his testimony. When I raise these issues with Sindram, he demurs. “The sum is the whole of its parts,” he says, chiding me and everyone else to look at the entirety of his testimony.
Sindram seems content to tilt at windmills until he slays his share of giants. He imagines one day he will settle his complaints with UDC and become a lawyer. But it doesn’t sound like that will happen soon. Under the oak tree in Battleground National Cemetery, Sindram tells me a version of a tale you may have come across in self-help books or chain emails. Basically, villagers trap a monkey by putting a coconut in a jar. The hole in the top of the jar is only as big as the coconut, so when the monkey reaches in he can grab the coconut, but can’t remove his hand from the jar because he is holding the coconut. The villagers are able to capture the monkey because he refuses to drop the coconut. Sindram says he relates to the monkey: “I won’t let go of the coconut.”