Former At-Large Councilmember Michael Brown accepts cash from FBI agents.
Former At-Large Councilmember Michael Brown accepts cash from FBI agents. Credit: FBI photo

The black and white image from the 2012 FBI sting is still stark in its simplicity.

Then-At-Large Councilmember Michael A. Brown, dressed as always in power pinstripes, holds a silver coffee mug with $5,000 in $100 bills neatly rolled up inside. He gazes at it lovingly, like a fine bottle of wine.

It was Aug. 28, 2012 and unbeknownst to Brown, federal authorities were in the midst of a bribery sting that would result in Brown’s arrest and imprisonment. In March 2013, FBI agents walked into a hotel room to arrest Brown as he accepted another $25,000 in cash, this time a fat roll of $100 bills bound by a rubber band.

Brown pleaded guilty to accepting a total of $55,000 in a series of meetings spanning eight months with FBI agents, who posed as officials of a Maryland company looking for D.C. government contracts and Brown’s insider help, and was sentenced to 39 months in prison. At sentencing, U.S. District Court Judge Richard (Ricky) W. Roberts denounced Brown’s crime, saying, “The citizens of the District of Columbia are better than that and they deserve better than that.”

Brown was released from an Alabama prison in 2017.

Now Washington City Paper has learned Brown is actively considering a return to city politics in the upcoming 2020 council races, and is looking to challenge Independent At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who defeated him in 2012.

Asked this week about a rebooting of his political career, Brown “declined comment at this time.”

Neither Councilmember Grosso nor At-Large Councilmember Robert White, who is also on the ballot next year, would publicly comment on Brown. But they and others privately dismiss any Brown comeback, citing Brown’s record of campaign violations—the FBI sting was not the only one—and the changing nature of the District’s politics and demographics.

Brown last ran for a Council seat in 2013 but dropped out as FBI agents closed in. Since Brown was last on the 13-member Council in 2012, there has been significant turnover. Only three of the 13 current members—Chairman Phil Mendelson, Ward 2’s Jack Evans, and Ward 3’s Mary Cheh—served with Brown. The 10 other members were elected after Brown left the Council.

Mendelson was almost expressionless Tuesday when he said of Brown’s political moves, “I’ve heard it and my understanding is he’s looking to see if it’s viable. I don’t think I’ll comment beyond that.”

Sources familiar with Brown’s thinking say he believes enough D.C. voters will give him a second chance in a high-turnout presidential general election in November 2020. Brown is also pursuing a legal strategy to have his conviction nullified, saying he was convicted of the same statute the U.S. Supreme Court threw out in the case involving former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. The high court said prosecutors had not shown McDonnell had done any specific illegal act in exchange for the expensive gifts McDonnell had received.

Some lawyers familiar with the case law say Brown’s effort is a legal stretch too far.

Since returning to the District from his Alabama prison, Brown has volunteered serving Thanksgiving dinner at the DC Central Kitchen, shown up at a Christmas toy drive with Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, and, on Jan. 2, was busy glad-handing everyone at the District’s inaugural ceremonies at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Brown has also remarried and now works as a consultant for Potomac International Partners, whose website refers to his public career but not his conviction.

Brown is the son of the late Commerce Secretary and Democratic political guru Ronald Brown. The younger Brown is widely seen to have thrown away a career in search of money for his expensive lifestyle. Still today, Brown exudes a friendly demeanor and brashness that even his critics say obscures his wrongdoing.

After his 2013 sentencing, Brown’s own lawyer—white collar heavyweight Reid Weingarten—said of Brown, “Michael Brown is done in public life. That is for sure.”

We may now see if that is still true.