The late actor Karl Malden played a tough San Francisco cop on television.
He did a famous commercial in 1978 for American Express traveler checks. If you lost all your cash and credit cards, he asked ominously, “What’ll you do? What will you do?”
Mayor Vincent Gray may be asking himself a similar question.
Yes, he has strong legal advice coming from veteran lawyer Bob Bennett. And like most good lawyers, Bennett has told Gray to clam up.
But legal events are moving swiftly and the cloud of guilt surrounding Gray’s administration is growing bleaker and bleaker. The political costs are rising, too.
Last week two Gray campaign insiders pleaded guilty to felonies for their part in paying minor candidate Sulaimon Brown to harangue then-Mayor Adrian Fenty at public forums.
The voters of the District in 2010 “were deceived,” said U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen. Your Notebook finds that word “deceived” chilling, and takes it as a sign that Machen’s investigations are quickening their pace.
So, let’s get back to Mayor Gray.
What will he do? What can he do?
The crimes involving him, if there are any, already have happened. All he can do is await the prosecutor’s investigation.
On the other hand, Mayor Gray may be completely innocent, the victim of people who thought they were helping him. Why doesn’t he just say so?
This is where it gets tricky with lawyers.
Their job, one prominent lawyer told me firmly, is to keep their clients out of jail if at all possible. Nothing more. The politics just have to play out. You may not save a political career, the lawyer said, but you keep the client out of jail. For a lawyer, that’s the only goal.
Of course that legal goal is in conflict with the public obligation of the political person.
Your Notebook has been asked repeatedly this same question, “If the mayor is innocent, why doesn’t he just tell us what he knows?”
The Notebook is sympathetic. We like to think that if we were being accused or suspected of criminal behavior -- and we were innocent -- that we’d be yelling from the rooftops and turning over any information we had. We wouldn’t protect anyone. (Cue the cliché: Let the chips fall where they may.)
But Mayor Gray, who initially insisted he had done nothing wrong, now only repeats that on advice of his lawyer, he’s not commenting.
It’s a good legal strategy, we guess. But the silence seems only to deepen the public’s suspicion when first one, then another has already pleaded guilty -- for all we know, there’s more to come.
• Tell us!
He’s hardly an unbiased source, but former D.C. Council member Bill Lightfoot last week urged Gray to tell the public what he knows.
Lightfoot, an accomplished trial lawyer, served as chair of both the 2006 and 2010 Adrian Fenty campaigns for mayor.
Appearing on the WAMU Politics Hour last week, Lightfoot said Gray owes the public an explanation. “Let’s not minimize what occurred here,” Lightfoot said, echoing U.S. Attorney Machen. “It was a deception of the public. And I think it is very hypocritical to run a campaign on honesty when in fact they were not.”
And remember, all of this outrage is over the Sulaimon Brown payments. A far more serious criminal investigation involves the huge piles of cash and checks that apparently went into the Gray campaign but were never quite accounted for on the books.
• The race for mayor.
The political landscape for Gray has soured so much that folks are openly contemplating who’ll run for mayor.
One possibility is that Gray could resign and we’d hold a special election this fall. More than a few candidates would enter that contest.
Also possible is that Gray -- just over a year into his four-year term -- could be guilty of serious civil campaign violations. He’d end up paying hefty fines. If that happens, Gray could limp along to the end of his term, but be unlikely or unable to run again. It is not a pleasant prospect for him.
• What about Brown?
All of this turmoil within the mayor’s world is occurring while we also await the criminal investigation into D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown’s 2008 campaign for an at-large seat on the council. Lots of money is still not publicly accounted for, and the prosecutors are being awfully quiet. That’s either the calm before the storm (that’s cliché number two this week) or there’s nothing there. Place your bets.
• A final word.
This week’s column is too depressing. Let’s end by noting that the Washington Nationals went on a tear in recent days, taking two out of three from the Phillies in Philadelphia and pulling off a three-game sweep of the Braves in Atlanta. “Is this team for real?” one commentator asked.
It’s certainly exciting to watch these guys play. And there’s still three-quarters of the season to go.