On the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, we were never far from questions about political scandal in our little city beyond the monuments.
People who went to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center for the NBC4 Health & Fitness Expo were asking what might happen next.
Folks at the Safeway grocery at 5th and K streets NW made similar inquiries.
And at a small private dinner Sunday night, the conversation included a wide range of good things but always returned to worries that there’s more scandal to come.
The week had ended with yet another guilty plea in the Harry Thomas Jr. corruption probe.
Marshall Banks, a 71-year-old Howard University professor who had worked with nonprofit youth groups, pleaded guilty to writing checks to Thomas even after Banks learned Thomas was spending much of the money to enrich himself with a lavish lifestyle. There was no indication that Banks took a dime for himself, but he was a good man who did nothing to stop Thomas.
Banks “was caught up” in Thomas’ wrongdoing, said his attorney, Vandy Jamison Jr. Now Banks could face as many as three years in prison. It reminds us of the famous Edmond Burke quote, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Here’s how U.S. Attorney for the District Ronald Machen sees it:
“While Harry Thomas lined his pockets with money meant to benefit children, he was unable to do so alone," Machen said in a formal statement after Banks’s guilty plea.
“Marshall Banks stood by while Thomas stole the money and instead of reporting it, actively helped to conceal the fact that grant funds were being funneled back to Thomas. Today's guilty plea underscores the importance of standing up and speaking out against public officials who are on the take,” Machen concluded.
While Banks was in federal court seeing his reputation and career ruined, another U.S. attorney was a guest on the WAMU 88.5 Politics Hour.
U.S. Attorney for the state of Maryland Rod Rosenstein's office prosecuted former Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson, who has been sentenced to 14 years for public corruption.
“Unfortunately, corruption is endemic to government,” Rosenstein told the Notebook and host Kojo Nnamdi. “And the way that we prevent corruption is by investigating and prosecuting it, by encouraging people when information comes to their attention, when they’re the targets of a corrupt official, or allegations of corruption come to their attention, to bring it to the attention of federal law enforcement.”
Rosenstein and Machen say their offices confer regularly, usually on drug and violent crime offenses. And they see eye to eye on how important it is to prosecute elected officials and how important it is to be thorough.
“The defendants are often people who have standing in the community; they’re respected,” Rosenstein said on Friday. “They have people who will come into court and testify as character witnesses on their behalf. And in order to prove those defendants guilty, you really need to have very powerful evidence, not just the testimony of other criminals, but something that objectively is going to be very difficult for them to deny.”
Machen said something similar when he was a Kojo guest a few weeks ago.
Sources say Machen’s office is painstakingly sifting through campaign records of Mayor Vincent Gray and Council Chairman Kwame Brown.
Neither is suspected of pulling a Thomas -- converting government money to his own use -- but both are under investigation for possible campaign violations that may violate federal law.
The temperature has risen with the Thomas guilty plea. Who’s next, if anyone, we’re often asked. We don’t know. But we’re keeping an eye on the comings and goings from that U.S. Attorney’s Office downtown.
• Oh, yeah, that.
After Vincent Gray was elected in the fall of 2010, one of his first promises was to go beyond the letter of the law and reveal all of his transition/inaugural donors and how any money raised had been spent. He even went so far as to say he might do weekly reports.
Fast-forward more than a year.
Late on Friday, just before the three-day King holiday weekend, the mayor’s office finally released a full report on that spending. In the news business, it’s called a “Friday news dump” when government officials release unflattering information just ahead of the weekend, hoping the bad news gets lost or stale by Monday.
The mayor’s office said the report simply was released Friday to meet a self-imposed deadline to have it done by the middle of January.
The dump left reporters suspicious as they thumbed through the report, which showed the mayor had raised and spent nearly $1 million on his transition and inauguration. It was money that in many cases was given in several $25,000 chunks, as well as a number of $10,000 and $5,000 donations.
And we’re sure the folks who gave that amount and other large sums just wanted to make sure the mayor had a smooth transition and a nice party. Nothing to see here folks; move along.