First Read
Your first stop for politics in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

Opinion: No Season-Ending Decisions in D.C. Politics

Email
|
Print

    NEWSLETTERS

    What if … the exhaustive, more than yearlong criminal probe of the Mayor Vincent Gray shadow campaign comes up snake eyes and Gray isn't charged or found guilty of any personal criminal wrongdoing?

    What if ... Ward 1 D.C. Council member Jim Graham didn't violate any laws despite that $800,000 Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority contracting investigation? The report says he violated Metro's conflict-of-interest rules, but it was less firm on referring possible criminal violations to prosecutors.

    What if ... all the back-room political haggling over the disputed D.C. Lottery contract was just that -- politics -- and no crimes are uncovered?

    What if ... recently reappointed Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi didn't, as alleged by some, display a nefarious nonchalance that has undermined his own tax collections or wasn't so incompetent that he allowed others to do so?

    What if ... at-large Council member Michael A. Brown really does just have lousy personal finance and business problems but none of it touches his public life or government decisions?

    What if ... the Washington Nationals hadn't benched fragile starter Stephen Strasburg, and the team had made it into the National League Championship Series or the World Series?

    Hmmmm. We'll leave that last one to others, as we still feel the sting of last weekend's playoff loss that ended a thrilling Nationals season.

    But the now well-worn litany of scandal and potential scandal in city politics, fair or not, seems endless. As we've said before, the city doesn't have an ethical wet blanket hanging over us -- it has a wet mattress.

    And the man who holds the most power to remove it is U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen. His investigators, the FBI, the IRS and others have been aggressively probing much of the above. But we head into fall and winter without any season-ending decisions in sight to wrap up any of it.

    Machen has always said that his office will act when it has something to act on, but he cautions that a lot of bad political behavior is in fact bad but not criminal. He told WAMU 88.5 FM that his office is working nights and weekends on all of this. There's no reason to doubt it.
       
    But just like baseball, there is no official clock. The game is played until it ends.

    Maybe soon -- maybe later -- we'll find out what games people have been playing, what inning we are in and whether chief umpire Machen is about to call the most important balls and strikes of his career.

    • Endless season.
    Even if some of these criminal investigations wrap up without formal charges, the game is not over. Criminal or not, the Gray campaign for mayor clearly ran afoul of campaign finance rules. There likely could be more administrative campaign and ethics office investigations and hefty fines.

    Questions over the lottery contract, the CFO issues and the other scandals will play out in political campaigns now and for some time to come.

    Scandal has marred our city, and we are not nearly done with it yet.

    • A bit more sports.
    The Nationals, of course, are done for the year.

    The always-on-point Tom Boswell of The Washington Post made sense of the excruciating pain of competing but losing.

    "There will be other seasons. But, for the Nats, none so thrilling, so shattering, so moving, as the first -- the first, that is, that really mattered,” he wrote.

    Meanwhile, the National Hockey League has the Capitals and rest of the league still locked out. In basketball, the Wizards already are adding up injuries rather than crafting winning strategies in the preseason. DC United? Who knows where this team is going or whether it finally will get a home stadium other than RFK.

    That leaves us with the Suburban 'Skins, formally known as the Washington Redskins. RGIII shook off fears over his concussion and led the team to an important win Sunday, even as the Cowboys and the Eagles lost. That was the big takeaway from the big sports weekend.

    • A final word. Former D.C. financial control board chair Andrew Brimmer died last week. He was 86.

    There were a few obituaries (The Washington Post had it right) and commentaries. But his death was barely noted, if at all, on the radio or on television news, that flailing camera media that used to hang onto Brimmer's every professorial, compounded sentence, hoping that there would be a usable sound bite in there somewhere.

    In 1996, Brimmer -- appointed by Congress and President Bill Clinton -- became the first chair of the control board, which took the reins of D.C. government from the mayor and council. The five-member board had dictatorial powers to fire people, reorganize city government and spend -- or not spend -- city money.

    Brimmer had already had a distinguished career, including serving as the first black member of the Federal Reserve Board.

    "He did so much when it was really difficult for someone to do anything," said John Hill, who served as executive director of the control board.

    In honoring Brimmer, Mayor Gray said, "The District has lost a man who was a bright light during our city’s darkest days. … It was unfortunate that the federal government had to step in and create the ‘control board,' … . However, Andrew Brimmer took on a thankless job that paved the road to create the District of Columbia we have today.”

    Your Notebook used to fume at Brimmer's total lack of understanding of news deadlines and the need for simple, declarative sentences to explain what he and the other board members were doing in their many closed meetings.

    Unions protested and marched, aggrieved city officials wailed, and businesses that depended on city contracts found the strings tightened.

    The Notebook at the time didn't like (and still doesn't) the usurpation of what little democracy D.C. citizens have. But there is no disputing that the control board preserved the local city government and set it on a path to fiscal responsibility. (It also effectively laid the groundwork for then-CFO Anthony Williams to run for mayor in 1998.)

    The control board law still exists; it remains dormant unless the city falls into financial disrepair again. Given the work done by Brimmer, his board members, succeeding chair Alice Rivlin, mayors Adrian Fenty and Gray and the D.C. Council, the prospect of fiscal ruin is slight. And for that, we all can be glad.