Tom Sherwood's Notebook: 10/12/11

Let’s be blunt.

A lot of people want to know when -- or if -- prosecutors are going to bring various criminal charges against Mayor Vincent Gray, Council Chairman Kwame Brown and Ward 5 Council member Harry “Tommy” Thomas.

It’s a question we get in the grocery, in line at a retail store or during casual dinner with friends. The question pervades the politics of our city.

In the worst-case scenario for the elected leaders, some believe we could end up having special elections to fill all three offices. But at this point, it’s all speculation.

Last Friday, the man who sits at the pinnacle of the real decision making sat down at WAMU 88.5 FM for “The Politics Hour” on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show.”

We asked U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. a simple question: “Where does [prosecution of] public corruption fit in your office? Is this a big deal to you?

Machen, whose office has 300 attorneys and deals in crimes from local murders to federal contract abuse to international terrorism, didn’t skip a beat.

“It is a big deal,” he said. “It’s a big deal to my entire office. It’s a big deal to me personally as a D.C. resident.”

Machen has the demeanor of most prosecutors -- cool and precise. In more casual moments, he laughs easily. But he is wary of any reporter trying to charm him into saying more than he should.

But he said enough.

“I have 25 assistants in that section that focus on fraud and public corruption.”

During the program, the Notebook said some people worry that local corruption may still get back-burner treatment to sexier national crimes even though everyone says local corruption is important.

“Is this front burner?” we asked.

“I can tell you we are aggressively looking at the matters,” Machen said.

Although Council member Thomas effectively has accepted civil liability for the $300,000 the city accused him of misspending, his exposure to criminal liability is different.

Again, although Machen would not comment on that specific case, he offered a legal lesson.

“These are significant matters,” he said of any investigation. “And there’s a real difference between potentially inappropriate or offensive conduct and criminal conduct. And our job is to make sure if there is criminal conduct, we get to the bottom of it and we take appropriate action.”

Reporters and the public grouse that criminal investigations go on so long, sometimes reaching no clear-cut conclusion. And Machen acknowledged that, too.

“And so, that takes time,” he said. “It’s a different standard than the civil context. It’s the highest standard you have. We have to have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, and it takes time. But all of that is to say that we understand that there’s a sense of urgency.”

Earlier this year, we wrote about the steady stream of corruption cases flowing through the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Those defendants include local and federal officials, many of them lower-level bureaucrats who are caught trying to rip off the system. In most cases, they are convicted or plead guilty, losing their careers and their liberty.

Does this conviction rate mean anything as prosecutors investigate higher-ups?

“If you learn anything,” Machen said of his public integrity conviction record, “you should learn how seriously we take it. And the steady stream demonstrates that if there’s a violation of public trust, we take that very seriously. And obviously, it goes up the scale the higher you go up in public office. And so, I think if anything you should be encouraged by the fact that we do have a track record of success in these matters.”

■ A final word.

In our television story last week about Machen’s appearance on WAMU, we mistakenly referred to him as “Robert” Machen. His first name is “Ronald.” We mention this error because we like to be as accurate as possible when it comes to names.

Earlier this year on the Kojo show, we also were talking about allegations of corruption. We made the mistake of saying “Tommy Wells” when we meant to say “Tommy Thomas.” We corrected our error right there on the spot, repeating the correction a couple of times.

Tommy Wells is the Ward 6 Council member. He was flabbergasted by the confusion with the Ward 5 member Tommy Thomas, who is facing the federal criminal probe.

We still have the salty phone message that Wells left us that afternoon before he heard the correction. Suffice to say, it would not pass the “no profanity” test reflected in a resolution the council approved last week. We’re still waiting for the right moment and place to replay the message publicly, maybe at a fundraiser or something. We’ll see.

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