Harry Jaffe, a longtime chronicler of the people and politics of Washington, D.C., writes a column for NBC Washington's First Read DMV blog.
What did the Mayor know? And when did she know it?
We have arrived at what passes for our mini-Watergate moment. No, the fate of the nation – let alone the nation’s capital – doesn’t hang on the answer to these questions, but they speak to matters of truth, credibility and accountability – the basic stuff of democracy.
Can we trust our leaders? Will they be held accountable?
Will the D.C. Council, in particular education committee chair David Grosso, require Mayor Muriel Bowser to testify and clear up a scandal? At this point, it seems the Council is punting on its basic duty to hold the executive accountable.
The facts are simple and well-known:
Last year, two of Bowser’s top appointees overstepped the lottery system that mere mortal parents must endure and used their special positions to place their children in coveted public schools. Bowser let her buddies slide. Nary a slap on the wrist. But she ordered her freshly appointed schools chancellor, Antwan Wilson, to write stringent guidelines prohibiting high-ranking city officials from moving their children from school-to-school – period.
Wilson then proceeded to switch his daughter from Duke Ellington School for the Arts to Woodrow Wilson High School. The inspector general caught wind of the apparent circumvention of rule and informed the mayor of his investigation in mid-February. Bowser waited a few days, hoping it would blow over, as it had before. Then she fired her deputy mayor for education. Then public and political anger mounted. Then she forced Wilson out.
But Wilson now says Bowser not only knew his daughter had transferred to Wilson, but she had essentially blessed the move. In other words, the mayor was complicit. The mayor vehemently denied the claim. Someone's not telling the truth.
How do we sort this out?
Enter education committee chair Grosso. With a touch of bravado, Grosso declared he would hold an "emergency" hearing and order Bowser to testify under oath. Accountability would happen!
Not so fast.
Bowser said she would refuse to testify in what she predicted would be "a political circus."
The mayor then dispatched her general counsel, Mark Tuohey, to Grosso’s office. Tuohey is one of the most respected lawyers in town, having been a federal prosecutor and prominent defense attorney for decades. He qualifies as a heavy.
"We had a very professional chat," Tuohey tells me. Tuohey told Grosso that he should be mindful of the inspector general's investigation and let it run its course. "David understood."
Keep in mind Tuohey had never set foot in Grosso’s office in the three years he has served as Bowser’s chief counsel. This was no friendly chat. Tuohey was there to deliver a political marching order.
Grosso called off his hearing.
"I do think there’s relevance here – the truth does matter," Grosso told WAMU. Then he flew into lofty territory about focusing his committee on "the kinds of things that it’ll take to turn schools around."
I asked Grosso by email Friday morning whether D.C. voters have the right to hear from Bowser in a public forum. "There are times when that is appropriate," he responded.
Apparently, this is not one of those times.
When I said Grosso could have settled a "simple question with a simple answer" on the mayor’s version of events, he responded: "Not so simple. And how do you think I would be able to compel her or anyone else to testify in a 'simple' way?"
With a subpoena.
Grosso concluded by saying he would consider asking Bowser to testify, depending on the results of the inspector general's investigation.
So we are left with Mark Tuohey’s version of the truth: "I credit the mayor with her candor. She didn’t know anything about this."
Here's why the mayor needs to get this right with voters. It's a kitchen table issue. Parents across the city have to go through a lottery system to get their children into the schools of their choice. When people in power get favorable treatment and circumvent the system, parents get righteously angry.
Which brings us to accountability. At this point, Bowser has no credible challengers for a second term, so we will derive no accountability from a political campaign. And the Council is not exercising its oversight jurisdiction over a mayor who controls the city’s public schools.
It can bring one to the harsh conclusion that the powerful get what they want; parents and students get stuck with substandard education.
And the mayor avoids a "political circus" at the expense of political accountability.