Tom Sherwood's Notebook: 07/14/10

Kwame Brown had been sailing smoothly in his effort to become the next chairman of the D.C. Council, but now he’s in some uncertain, turbulent water.

NBC4 reported last week that the at-large council member has more than $50,000 in credit card debt, penalties, interest and attorney fees.

That’s $50,000 -- on just three credit cards.

American Express and two separate issuers of Visa cards all filed suit recently in D.C. Superior Court, demanding full payment.

According to court records, Brown agreed on April 29 of this year to pay off one of the Visa cards -- with a balance of about $23,000 -- at $500 per month. At that rate, not counting interest, it will take him almost four years just to pay off one card.

In an interview with NBC4, Brown said he had also made payment arrangements for the other two cards, although there are no court papers confirming details.

To his credit, Brown acknowledged the debts, saying he and his wife had been “living beyond our means.” He told The Washington Post that the couple had spent money for violin lessons for the children and on other family expenses. He said they’re on a strict budget now and are mindful of any expense. Whatever his wife’s role, only Brown’s name is on the three credit card suits we saw.

The NBC4 revelation shook even supporters of the two-term council member.

Brown said the heavy personal debt has had no impact on how he has conducted the public’s business. Nor, he said, would it affect his role if he were to become chairman.

There would be at least one positive impact if he wins the chairman’s job. Right now, Brown earns $125,000 a year as a council member. As chairman, he would earn $190,000. That’s a $65,000-a-year pay increase. It could make paying off his debts a lot easier.

And just think. Had he run for mayor and won, he’d be getting paid $200,000 a year.

• Why? Why? Why?

There are two things about Kwame Brown's situation that political types are wondering, especially those who support him.

The first question is a common one. Is that all there is? Will the debt disclosure prompt other revelations of financial woes? That’s the trouble with these types of stories -- other information could begin to drip out. Brown has told close associates that there’s nothing else.

But second, why did he let this financial mess go on so long?

Brown was being mentioned as a potential candidate for mayor all last year. He even told the WAMU “Politics Hour” with Kojo Nnamdi that he was “seriously” considering running for mayor and that it didn’t matter whether Council Chairman Vincent Gray, developer Don Peebles or anyone else ran.

And then the chance for chairman popped up.

With all this positive political opportunity facing him, why didn’t Brown voluntarily do something about his massive debts?

He could have worked out payments before the credit card companies sued him, and there would have been no public record. He could have consolidated the debts in a loan. (That’s assuming his credit would allow such a loan.)

Last week, as NBC4 worked on this story, Brown attended a Ward 4 forum on the chairman’s race. His chief opponent, Vincent Orange, was there.

Brown twice stood up and said it's important for city leaders to keep the District financially strong with balanced budgets. He said he could and would do that.

We sat there with a video camera recording those comments, knowing that Brown’s own finances were in trouble.

Maybe the voters will make a distinction between the public Kwame and the private Kwame. That’s what he hopes and expects. If not, he might want to consider a new name for his boat -- "Bullet Proof," with its connotation of invincibility, may no longer be apt.

• More red ink.

The city’s grand effort to help make a go of the United Medical Center in Southeast has gone belly up. The District government has seized the hospital’s assets and intends to run it as a nonprofit until a new buyer can be found.

The District has sunk more than $100 million into keeping the hospital open for the past three years.

Mayor Adrian Fenty, the council and chief financial officer Natwar Gandhi all agree that it’s important to keep open the only hospital east of the Anacostia River. Far too many families and individuals depend on the hospital for the city to close it like D.C. General.

But Gandhi has warned that the city, in the midst of its own budget issues, will have to be prepared to pay many millions of dollars in operational costs.

• Nats night for Tony.

 We were watching the game between the Nats and the Giants on TV Saturday night. There behind home plate in one of the cushioned seats were former Mayor Tony Williams and his wife, Diane. The former mayor was wearing a red Nats hat. He even did the wave when it swept through his section, although he did look a bit sheepish as he sat down.

It was good to see him enjoying the stadium that wouldn’t exist without his strong backing.

• John Hill “Player.”

We always knew the former executive director of the D.C. financial control board was a “player.” And he still is, as head of the Federal City Council.

But now the Urban Libraries Council has given him the “Urban Player Award” for his work as head of the D.C. Public Library board of trustees. It honors “individuals who have provided substantive community leadership and have created a stronger presence for public libraries.”

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