In 2007, Darryl Colbert started up a volunteer gig as head of the Ward 8 Drug Prevention Council. The group was one of a network of 15 all-volunteer councils organized by that ward’s councilmember, Marion Barry. Colbert describes the council’s work as “trying to help gather groups to form a true continuum of care.” They’d hold meetings, do some seminars and training sessions—things like that.
Late last year, however, his volunteering ended. Brenda Richardson, a close Barry aide, asked if he’d be interested in getting paid for his work, and Colbert said sure—why not? Who wouldn’t welcome $1,200 to $1,500 per month in this economy?
What didn’t change was the work he was doing. “That’s why I accepted it. I just simply continued to do the same thing as a paid consultant,” says Colbert.
What had happened is that Barry had appropriated $75,000 in city funding earlier in the year to turn the Drug Prevention Council into Clean and Sober Inc.—one of six nonprofit corporations created to absorb nearly a half-million dollars in earmarks. The other organizations—Clean and Green Inc., plus the Ward 8 Education, Health, Workforce Development, and Youth Leadership councils—all got the same amount.
Colbert says he had no doubt who was the prime mover behind his new paycheck. Richardson, he says, “made it clear that it was with the councilmember’s approval.”
Barry and Colbert share an intimate bond: Colbert has been Barry’s addiction sponsor for nearly 20 years. “The relationship that the councilmember and I have has always been strictly a personal one, not anything to do with politics or business,” he says. “I’ve been helping him as much as I can to keep his head on straight.”
In an interview, Barry says Colbert was chosen as an incorporator by Richardson “because of his experience and his 20 years of working in his community. We wanted him to be involved.”
That a political relationship would turn into a financial relationship was par for the course for Barry’s nonprofits. Virtually every person who has drawn a significant paycheck from the six groups was either a paid staffer or volunteer with Barry’s reelection campaign last year. That includes Colbert, who helped with outreach. That includes Jackie Ward, who now heads up Clean and Green for at least $40,000 per year after doing campaign work. That includes Allie Bird, who heads up the Workforce Development Council for $40,000 per year and volunteered on Barry’s campaign. That includes Richardson, a campaign consultant and close aide now pulling down at least $60,000 a year as head of the Health and Education councils and as a consultant to Clean and Green.
And that also includes Sharon Wise, a campaign worker who managed Clean and Sober and the Youth Leadership Council for a combined $65,000 per year—before she says she was told by Richardson and Barry that Colbert would be paid $15,000 per year out of her Clean and Sober fee. Her account, which is supported by e-mails and an audiotape of a key meeting at the Wilson Building, led to Washington City Paper’s investigation of the nonprofits, revealing a pattern of irregularities in their establishment and operation.
Barry explains that the genesis of the six nonprofits came in the informal councils he’d established years before. And “when the opportunity came from the council for me to participate in recommending a number of organizations to be funded for 2009, I recommended [them] to the Council of the District of Columbia.…They went through the normal process of being approved.”
A well-worn paraphrase of that argument comes from a turn-of-the-century Tammany Hall crony: “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em,” George Washington Plunkitt, noted practitioner of “honest graft,” famously said.
Richardson, Barry acknowledges, was told “to get these councils incorporated that were not incorporated. That was a mandate from me—to get them organized, to get them to follow the rules the council requires.” As for her ongoing role with the groups, he says, “her job is very simple: accountability. She doesn’t make the decision about who’s hired; she doesn’t make the decision about who’s fired.…I want anything I recommend to be accountable and transparent.”
That account, of course, is directly refuted by what Richardson is recorded as saying in a March meeting at the John A. Wilson Building. At the meeting, Wise accused her of siphoning funds from her salary to pay Colbert. Richardson replied, “The councilmember did that!”
There aren’t too many plausible ways to spin that one, but Barry does his best: “Ms. Richardson misspoke on that tape,” he says. And Richardson’s lawyer, A. Scott Bolden, weasled out in a similar fashion in comments to WTTG-TV: “It’s easy to understand Ms. Richardson’s comments, while a poor choice of words, meant that this was Mr. Barry’s feeling in regards to poor performance out of Ms. Wise, but that doesn’t mean he was controlling the dollars.”
In the context of the tape, Bolden’s explanation makes no sense—it’s clear Richardson was talking about the money, not Wise’s job performance.
And the accountability defense is sullied by this fact: Richardson was being paid tens of thousands by three of the groups she was supposed to be holding accountable, which would be a clear conflict of interest if she was merely playing the role Barry says she was. Asked if such a conflict existed, Barry replied: “Of course not. In terms of those three organizations, between [chief of staff] Bernadette Tolson and myself, we do oversight on those. She was hired by those three groups and…she does all the other work with all the other councils as a volunteer.”
Barry also raised the objection that Wise had illegally recorded the Wilson Building conversation, that “she violated the laws of the District of Columbia [by recording] without the other person’s consent.” That’s simply not true—under D.C. law anyone party to a conversation is free to record it without telling the other participants—D.C. Official Code §23-542(b)(3), for your reference, councilmember.
In moving the councils from volunteer organizations to incorporated nonprofits, the Barry people outfitted them with cronies. Prior to its incorporation, the Ward 8 Health Council boasted some serious expertise: It was co-chaired by a health department official and Kristen Khanna, an infection-disease specialist who did postdoctoral work at Johns Hopkins and had met Richardson through a group working on development at Poplar Point.
During her stint on the health council, Khanna says she worked with Richardson to organize monthly meetings with various guest speakers, but by April 2007, Khanna had quit as co-chair. “It just didn’t seem that it was going anywhere,” she says. “It didn’t seem to be moving forward. There wasn’t the ability to take action on any of those ideas.”
She helped out afterward, helping organize focus groups for the RAND Corp., which was in the process of assembling a massive study on the city’s health needs. But Khanna didn’t hear anything else about the council until recently, when she learned that her name showed up on a city document for the newly incorporated health council. Without her knowledge, she had been listed as president of the group. She immediately contacted her lawyer and requested that city officials remove her name from the group’s documentation.
The only paid employee of the health council is Richardson, according to Wise. Its purpose, according to the group’s grant agreement with the Department of Health, is to organize walking clubs and nutrition classes, put out a brochure about the group, and “continue the work of the Ward 8 Health Council.” Quarterly reports describing compliance with the goals were not available by press time.
Others with close Barry ties play key roles in the nonprofits, sitting on their boards, such as they exist. Carmen McCall, an incorporator of four of the groups and a charter member of the health council board, was a volunteer coordinator for the Barry campaign. Rodney Bunn, who, as chairman of the board, signed an April letter firing Wise from the Youth Leadership Council, is the son of Barry compadre James Bunn. Derrick Colbert, who signed a similar letter firing Wise from Clean and Sober, is Darryl Colbert’s son. Anthony Motley, an incorporator and board member of the Workforce Development Council, is perhaps Barry’s closest confidant these days and was his campaign manager.
Motley—who works on employment issues through his own nonprofit, the Jobs Coalition, which got its own $50,000 earmark last year—says that “you want to try to get the best minds” for the boards. “Those with the experience. Those who have some technical know-how.”
Or perhaps just an eagerness to serve. Lysandra Lawrence, a campaign volunteer who sits on the board of the Education Council, is a school-bus driver for special-ed kids. She describes herself as a “parent advocate.” When interviewed about the education council, Lawrence was unaware of who served as its chair. There’s also the Rev. Hattie McDuffie, a chaplain for the police department and campaign volunteer who sits on the Clean and Sober board. Her expertise in treating the addicted: “I can pray for them,” she says.
The hullabaloo over the nonprofits has clearly annoyed Barry, who made several calls to LL last week to tell his side of the story. One of his talking points is the credibility of Wise. “Just because she says it’s raining doesn’t mean it’s raining. She lying all over the place.…It’s unfair to [Clean and Sober], it’s unfair to Ms. Richardson for you to believe everything she says.”
Barry’s on firmer terrain when he raises this point: “What’s the big deal? There’s nothing illegal about me or any other councilmember supporting an organization that they have established if that organization is doing good work and meets the requirements. Tell me where in the rules it says that can’t happen. I resent you implying that something is going on.”
Indeed, Barry may be a step ahead of the law on the earmark/nonprofit front. It appears that no provision in council rules or District law prohibits a councilmember from appropriating money to groups that do not exist, that are subsequently created by his staff, then operate under their oversight, and dish money to the councilmember’s allies. But federal investigators may take a harsher view of the way that the groups were incorporated, via apparent forgeries and other shenanigans. There are also corporate governance laws and fraud statutes that make it a crime to “deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.”
The legality of Barry’s maneuvers, however, is just a preface to the more central public policy question at play—that the earmarks are a foolish and redundant use of city money. Around Ward 8 and other underserved parts of the District, it’s
easier to find a nonprofit than a cop or a sanitation truck or a social worker. These organizations are everywhere, operating on shoestring budgets, many without being incorporated or having federal tax-exempt status. Why add six more—especially when council rules prevent them from being funded by earmarks for more than two years in a row?
Without the largesse of the oversight-impaired council, these groups would have virtually no source of income. They have yet to secure federal tax exemptions, a common precondition to soliciting contributions. LL pointed out to Barry that, given those circumstances, his nonprofits will probably die come Oct. 1, 2010.
“Not probably,” Barry said. “They will.”
Consider the Workforce Development Council, whose mission is to “build the capacity of the Ward 8 workforce through a family-focused, community-based continuum of support that empowers residents to access and retain living wage jobs and careers.”
That group’s two principals—board chair Tom Brown and project manager Bird—are also the principals of Training Grounds, another nonprofit with a stated mission of “workforce development training” as well as “developing the market of untapped and underutilized workers who may not be college bound but possess useful & marketable skills that are desperately needed and in high demand in today’s workforce.”
Pretty close—so why not just give the money to Training Grounds if they do similar work? Why create groups that do the same work that established nonprofits are doing?
Barry’s response: “So what if they do? I have the right to make a judgment about it.”
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