Did D.C. Taxpayers Help Pay to Write Marion Barry’s Book?
Pack away your “bitch set me up” gags, folks. After countless performances of “Stormy Monday” and comparisons to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, the book tour for Marion Barry’s autobiography Mayor for Life is winding down.
Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, though, LL can now give the Ward 8 councilmember’s tight-lipped tome the Behind the Music treatment. For example, thanks to emails between Barry’s staffers and his publisher, LL has learned that Barry originally wanted to swap out the book’s title for the somehow even more aggrandizing “Marion Barry: A Badge of Courage,” an idea Barry’s publisher ultimately quashed.
There was some drama between Barry and his co-author, novelist Omar Tyree, too. After seeing drafts of the book’s cover, Barry worried that Tyree’s name loomed too large on the front cover, and requested that it be shrunk down to a more mortal size.
Neither of those requests came directly from Barry, though. Instead, they were emailed—from her government email account, which is how LL obtained them under open-records laws—by LaToya Foster, a former Fox News columnist who now works as Barry’s D.C. Council spokeswoman. Foster’s work earned her a coveted spot in Mayor for Life’s acknowledgements chapter, where he thanks her for the “nights, weekends, and many long hours of assistance” she spent on the book.
As long as he’s acknowledging Foster, though, Barry should be thanking the District residents who pay her $69,010 Council salary. According to calendar entries and emails reviewed by LL, Foster’s work on the memoir stretched far beyond her off-hours and into the D.C. Council workday, an arrangement that appears to violate D.C. Council ethics rules. Perhaps Barry does deserve that badge of courage after all—or at least a badge for chutzpah.
Much of Foster’s workday contributions to the book centered around meetings in 2013 with Barry’s associates meant to jog Barry’s memory as Tyree wrote the book. In the appointments, described as “memory refreshers,” Barry and Foster spent hours in either his Wilson Building office or his Anacostia constituent service office meeting with Barry acolytes like advisor-turned-felon Ivanhoe Donaldson or former City Administrator Elijah Rogers.
Foster, who didn’t respond to LL’s requests for comment, is also listed as a participant on calendar entries for meetings between Barry and Tyree. And she’s listed as attending meetings with just Barry to go over old newspaper clips. In an email, Tyree urged Foster to compile articles about Barry “to jar his memory” for the book. Emails also show Foster tinkering with a biography of Barry meant for promotional materials during the workday.
Thanks to a Council rule that allows the $132,990-a-year legislators to hold second jobs, Barry could write his book whenever he wanted; he’s in the clear even if he spent frequent afternoons in the middle of the week working on his memoir. But his use of Foster in the book’s production is murkier. According to the calendar entries, Foster spent 61 hours in meetings during workdays last year for her boss’s book. The Council’s ethics rules prohibit staffers from using the business day for “other purposes other than official business or government-approved or sponsored activities.”
Ethics rules also prohibit councilmembers from asking their staff to work on non-Council projects during the workday. Not that Foster likely needed much convincing. “I want people to realize that there is more to this man than what meets the eye,” she wrote in one email to the publishing director at Strebor Books, which produced Mayor for Life.
Foster’s emails left LL thinking Barry needs a staff more skilled in Wilson Building subterfuge, or at least in registering some Gmail accounts. Some councilmembers, aware that FOIA requests could expose their emails, have turned to private addresses to conceal their work, a practice that became so widespread that open government activists sued to stop it.
As Barry’s indiscretions go, this is hardly steering city money to a girlfriend (which earned him a censure from the Council in 2010) or taking money from a city contractor in a strip-club parking lot (which helped earn him the same punishment last year).
While it’s nice of Foster to help her boss’s literary career—albeit for a book that compares snorting cocaine to an orgasm—she still helped make him money on Council time. Consider if Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans had used his staff to prepare briefs for his law firm. Or if Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who moonlights as a George Washington University law professor, used her Council staff to grade exams.
Give Foster credit for one thing, though, in her use of Council resources to work on the book: transparency! By using her government email account, Foster gave LL a clear glimpse into the development of the memoir. Draft copies of the book emailed to Foster feature sections deleted from the final copy, including a less apologetic version of Barry’s “Dirty Asian Shops” remark and an account of the earmark steering scandal.
Foster’s emails to people working on the book also show how Barry’s camp balanced between profiting from Barry’s sensational 1990 arrest for smoking crack and trying to play down what Barry implies in the book could have been an FBI attempt to murder him. “I know I hit heavy on the shock of January 1990, but there’s no way of getting around telling Barry’s full story in this book, so let’s just SELL the thing first!” Tyree wrote in one email about promotional materials.
Foster’s assistance didn’t seem to help Barry meet his deadlines. Last September, Strebor Books founder Kristina Laferne Roberts, who writes erotic fiction under the pseudonym Zane, complained to Foster that Barry’s changes came in so late that she would have to edit the text herself. Maybe she should’ve asked his Council staff instead.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery