D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics Chair Togo West had just gaveled last week’s meeting to a close. The board had voted to ask that the U.S. Attorney’s Office investigate Council Chairman Kwame Brown’s 2008 council campaign committee, the one with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fuzzy accounting.
Several reporters, including your Notebook, pressed around West. We were wondering why the board had passed up a chance to fine the Brown committee tens of thousands of dollars for its faulty reporting.
Washington Post reporter Mike DeBonis asked why the board had put off any fine to await what could be a lengthy, uncertain probe by U.S. Attorney Ron Machen Jr.
The mild-mannered West quickly swiveled toward DeBonis and said, “Let me tell you, the referral to the U.S. attorney is considered the bigger of the sanctions. … Don’t you know what a referral with an apparent violation means? It means we think that there’s criminal activity here that needs to be looked into.”
The mere mention of those two words raised the stakes for Kwame Brown.
During the polite meeting, no one had mentioned the word “criminal.”
William Sanford, the general counsel of the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, had read a detailed complaint that listed 11 specific failings to properly report about $350,000 in fundraising and spending. He concluded by suggesting that the board consider asking for the U.S. attorney’s participation. But Sanford never said “criminal.”
Board chair West continued his impromptu news conference.
“When all is said and done, the people of the District of Columbia are entitled to a conclusion as to what happened here and what if any penalties there will be,” he said.
A reporter asked why the audit of the 2008 campaign took so long. West said bluntly that the elections board needs more auditors.
“I say, get me some more auditors so that I can flood the place with auditors the way the FBI does,” West said. “You want to improve ethics policing in the District of Columbia, get me some more auditors.” Just for the record, the board has only four auditors.
And West said he didn’t believe the federal authorities would delay too long. “The board’s action is that the issue is squarely in the U.S. Attorney’s Office to use all their firepower and all the resources of the FBI to move this along,” he said.
We recite last week’s story in detail because West has had a prominent legal career and is the top-ranking official in the city to link the Kwame Brown campaign’s actions with the word “criminal.”
While some community leaders have called on Brown to either resign or temporarily step aside, no other elected official has been so blunt.
• Kwame strikes back.
Despite the looming “criminal” charge freshly hanging over his politics, the council chairman on Tuesday tried to show he was still in charge of the D.C. Council. And he mostly succeeded, although the political fallout is unclear.
Brown introduced a surprise committee realignment that stripped the transportation committee -- and Metro board seat -- from Ward 6 member Tommy Wells.
It was, in the words of many, pure political payback.
Wells earlier this year authored a stinging rebuke of the chairman and his city-paid leases of two “fully loaded” SUVs. After losing his committee Tuesday, Wells didn’t back down, saying he had stood for ethical behavior and was glad he had done the report. But Wells said his removal from the Metro board would set back the city a year or more while the new member gets up to speed.
The committee realignment -- almost unprecedented in the history of the council -- was great political theater. Brown called Wells to his office late Monday night to deliver the bad news.
The immediate beneficiary of Brown’s action is Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh. Brown already had elevated Cheh to chair pro tem, a largely ceremonial job long held by Ward 2 member Jack Evans. Evans is still smarting over that snub.
Now, Brown is handing the plum transportation committee to Cheh. It’s a political move that Wells won’t likely forget.
Cheh told the Notebook that apart from any political interpretations of the moves, she welcomes her new committee responsibilities and will still have a strong say over environmental issues.
(Some political observers note that Cheh has aligned herself with Mayor Vincent Gray, who lost Ward 3 by 80 to 85 percent of the vote, and now is aligning herself with Kwame Brown, who is facing severe ethics charges. Cheh says she’s just trying to do a good job for Ward 3.)
Although the council members voted 12-1 (Wells was the only negative vote) to support the new committee shakeup, it’s not a clear-cut victory for Brown. The turmoil of committee realignments and the legal investigations into both the chairman and Ward 5 Council member Harry "Tommy" Thomas have some citizens reeling.
D.C. Chamber of Commerce president Barbara Lang was nearly speechless in the hallway outside the council chambers. But she did say that the council’s instability -- plus worries about the slow-moving administration of Mayor Gray -- is causing alarm among the city’s business leaders, large and small.
She wasn’t speaking for ordinary citizens, but she could have been.
• Kwame and the Dalai Lama.
Last weekend the council chairman welcomed the Dalai Lama to Washington. A news release from the chairman said he received a “special blessing” from the holy man.
• Funny headline.
Washington Post business reporter Jonathan O’Connell passed along this headline from the Fairfax Times: "Residents fear Tysons Walmart will choke traffic." We have to ask, how could it get worse?
• A final word.
And from Washington Business Journal reporter Michael Neibauer we learned that developer Chip Akridge is giving up on redeveloping the used-car lot at 5220 Wisconsin Ave. He now has other things in the works.
Akridge was stymied at first by some scattered community opposition to his development plans. Meanwhile, just across Western Avenue, development is creating businesses and jobs and tax revenue for Maryland.
The underdeveloped lot is doing little for any commercial interest or city taxes.
We hope people who walk across Western Avenue to shop, eat and play while paying Maryland sales taxes keep that in mind when and if the next developer takes on the site.