Like most of his colleagues on the D.C. Council, Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry has made ample use of the city’s legislative earmarks—grants that politicians can steer toward their favorite nonprofit groups.
Yet few have shown Barry’s mastery in funneling those earmark monies to organizations that share his agenda. City records show that Barry has directed $1 million in city funds to six groups under the apparent control of his own staff. What’s more striking about the arrangements is how they came about:
• Barry secured council funding for the groups in June 2008. That was five months before the groups even existed—that is, before they were properly registered with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA).
• The corporation documents appear to be marred by highly irregular representations. A supposed incorporator of multiple organizations says her signatures were forged on the papers, and one alleged incorporator is a person who doesn’t exist.
• The documents were drawn up by paid Barry staffers and notarized by a close political ally of Barry. The incorporation papers for each group were virtually identical, with only the group names and the names of the incorporators and corporate directors changing. A Barry associate closely oversees the operations of all the groups.
The groups have just the sort of names you’d expect from do-gooder associations: the Ward 8 Education Council, the Ward 8 Workforce Development Council, the Ward 8 Health Council, the Ward 8 Youth Leadership Council, Clean and Sober, and Clean and Green. They were registered with the city on the same day, Oct. 29, 2008.
Each of them received $75,000—$450,000 total—in District funds for fiscal year 2009.
After revelations that Barry directed $15,000 in council money to former girlfriend Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, the creation and management of the nonprofits raise additional questions about Barry’s use of public funds. Under this nonprofit arrangement, he has been able to use the council’s earmark allotment to effectively expand his council offices, furthering the reach of his legendary patronage.
Take, for example, how the councilmember approached Sharon Wise, a longtime friend who has known Barry since moving to town in the early 1990s.
Wise has worked for both Barry’s council and campaign staffs over the years, mostly as a volunteer. Last summer, the two ran into each other at Barry’s ward office in Anacostia, as they often would. Barry had a pitch: “He said, ‘Could you use a few thousand a month?’” Wise recalls. “I said, ‘Sure!’” Barry mentioned that he had “some grants coming through.”
Soon enough, Wise had become project director of both Clean and Sober and the Youth Leadership Council, groups with self-explanatory missions for Barry’s home turf.
Running two nonprofits was plenty of work for Wise, who has never done any work for the other nonprofits orchestrated by Barry’s people, aside from some occasional catering. Funny thing, though: Her name and a signature are affixed to incorporation documents for three of those groups. Those signatures don’t match her genuine signature.
“That’s a forgery,” says Wise, referring to the signature that purports to represent her on one group’s incorporation papers.
Wise says she was unaware she had been listed on the documents until DCRA mailed certified copies to her months later.
Wise also says that a name appearing on the Youth Leadership Council documents is fraudulent: A “Ms. Mercedes Wise” is listed as an incorporator of the group, residing at the same address as Sharon Wise. But there is no Mercedes Wise, she says—the name of her son, who has also done work for the group, is Theodore Mercedez Wesby. He has never used the name “Mercedes Wise.”
“That’s somebody that don’t exist,” Wise says. Wesby adds: “I’ve never signed anything by that name.”
* * *
Where did all these groups come from?
In an interview, Barry says several of these organizations were already doing good works in his ward, under different names and on a volunteer basis. When the opportunity came to give them some city funding, he seized it. “They went through the normal process,” says the councilmember.
E-mails provided by Wise add a bit of context to Barry’s account. They indicate that paid Barry staffers and a close personal associate were in charge of the process. In an e-mail drafted Feb. 18, Drew Hubbard, Barry’s committee director, tells Wise that he and Barry aide Essita Holmes drafted the incorporation articles, and that Brenda Richardson was “responsible for gathering the signatures.” The $70 incorporation fee was paid for by a check from the Marion Barry Scholarship Educational Fund; it was signed by Anthony Motley, a close associate, and Donna Rouse, a member of Barry’s staff.
In addition, all of the signatures on the incorporation documents were notarized by James Bunn, a close Barry associate and chair of the Ward 8 Business Council, which is another earmark recipient, but not one directly associated with the other groups. Bunn, in an interview, says that “all the people that I notarized—they were there when the papers were signed.”
On the question of discrepancies between the signature of Wise on one group to the next: “That’s an issue that somebody’s going to have to take over. That’s the extent that I’m going to comment.” And who is Mercedes Wise? “That would be her son.”
Pamela Thomas, listed as an incorporator for Clean and Sober, Clean and Green, and the Youth Leadership Council, had no idea she had played such a role until a reporter informed her Friday evening.
“I’m kind of puzzled on all this,” she says. When shown the incorporation documents for each of the nonprofits bearing her name, Thomas still came up blank. “I’ve never seen these,” she says.
Though Thomas’ signature appears to match the signatures on the nonprofit incorporation forms, she says she “never signed my name or anything like that. I’d remember that,” she says. “Someone’s using my name? Oh, my Jesus.”
Thomas says her signature should appear only on sign-in sheets for various community meetings held at Barry’s ward office. She says she did volunteer work for a few months in 2008 under the direction of Richardson. “I used to work for her,” Thomas says. “She was like the supervisor. I was a volunteer helping them out.”
In late June, Thomas got a letter asking her to attend a July 13 Ward 8 Health Council board meeting at Barry’s constituent services office. Richardson penned a personal note at the top of the form letter. It reads: “Hi Pam, Councilmember Barry would be delighted if you could attend this meeting. Thanks. Brenda.” Thomas is listed as a director of the health council, a position she didn’t know she held.
###NEXT PAGE: A history of misappropriation.###
Even signatures that appear to be genuine raise questions. Carmen McCall, whose name appears as an incorporator for four of the six groups, has a history of misappropriating funds. In January 2008, McCall pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $6,000 from Eliot Junior High School, where she worked as business manager. She admitted to pocketing cash intended for the school activity fund over a three-year period. She also pleaded guilty in 1991 to stealing from the D.C. government, according to court records.
Multiple attempts to contact McCall to verify her signature were unsuccessful, but the signature on her 2008 plea deal appears to match the signatures on the incorporation documents.
Another irregularity: The Rev. Hattie McDuffie says she joined the board of Clean and Sober “a few months ago.” Yet according to DCRA documents, she was one of the founding board members appearing on the October 2008 papers.
McDuffie says there’s no doubt who’s in charge of Clean and Sober: Richardson. “She’s the head of the whole thing,” says McDuffie.
Richardson’s work in setting up the groups has segued into a supervisory role. While she is not currently on the D.C. Council payroll, she is listed on Barry’s council Web site as his deputy chief of staff for community engagement. She works out of Barry’s ward office, at 2100 Martin Luther King Ave. SE, Suite 307—which is the same address listed on stationery for Clean and Sober and the Youth Leadership Council.
According to records obtained from District government agencies overseeing the grants, Richardson is being paid through at least two of the nonprofits. For her role as project manager in charge of the Ward 8 Education Council, she billed almost $20,000 for work between last October and this March. As a “consultant” to Clean and Green, Richardson billed more than $10,000 over the same period; Jackie Ward, who is listed as the project manager for Clean and Green and who also works out of Barry’s ward office, also billed about $10,000 during that period.
An extensive electronic trail documents Richardson’s big foot in the operation of the other nonprofits. On Dec. 8, Richardson sent an e-mail to the executive directors of several of the groups, saying that “all reports and other documentation must go through me” before funds are released. On Dec. 17, Richardson wrote Wise to tell her that “CM Barry has required all fiscal agents and consultants to attend all monthly meetings that I have scheduled on Fridays.” Her micromanagement extended to directing the councils on exactly how their funds could be spent. In a Jan. 27 e-mail, Richardson wrote that “[p]ursuant to our recent conversation with CM Barry” she would order office supplies through Staples and that all catering would be provided by an outfit called Tasty Treats.
Culinary micromanagement notwithstanding, Barry insists Richardson didn’t direct the day-to-day operations of the groups. “Brenda Richardson’s 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….She is my accountability person.”
Richardson referred inquiries to her attorney, A. Scott Bolden, who refused to answer Washington City Paper reporters’ questions. “Please refrain from contacting me or my client, Ms. Richardson in the future,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Contracts provided by Wise show that she was to be paid $40,000 yearly for leading Clean and Sober and an additional $25,000 to lead the Youth Leadership Council. Then, in November, she says Richardson had some news for her: Darryl Colbert, another Barry associate, would be getting $15,000 from Clean and Sober, and it would be coming out of Wise’s end. Wise said no way would she allow Colbert to be paid out of her salary.
Colbert, the Washington Post reported in 2006, has served as Barry’s addiction sponsor since the early 1990s, and he currently works as the program manager for the Catholic Charities substance abuse network. “It’s not a personal relationship,” says Barry of his ties to Colbert. “I don’t go with him. I like women.”
As for his role in the earmarked nonprofits, Colbert would later explain to Wise in an e-mail that he would bring “my experience with substance abuse to the different committees.” Whatever that meant to the nonprofits’ mission, it meant a reduced salary for Wise: By January, her check had been cut to accommodate payments to Colbert.
Colbert didn’t respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Catholic Charities released this statement: “I know that Darryl has worked for us with over 20 years and has helped a lot of people with addictions. What is new to us is this whole involvement as it relates to the [nonprofits] and we are looking at it presently.”
Unwilling to just play along with her reduced salary, Wise first appealed to Richardson, who responded, “Well, the councilmember told me to do it.” So Wise called the man himself on his cell phone. His message: “If you don’t like it, you can resign.” A few days later, Richardson sent an e-mail to Wise that read, “The CM shared that you have resigned from both you Councils. He asked you to drop everything off at the office tomorrow.”
Wise called Barry and got reinstated.
The whole situation caused strains in Wise’s working relationship with Richardson. She took her concerns to D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, whose office oversees the whole earmarking process.
Since assuming the chairmanship in 2007, Gray has attempted to bring order to a free-for-all. Where the situation used to be “you’d just show up and pick up
your check,” according to Eric Goulet, council budget director, Gray in 2008 for the first time placed rules on the earmarking process.
After a series of unflattering press reports about burgeoning pork-barrel politics on the council, Gray included Goulet-drafted language in budget legislation limiting earmark amounts and requiring grantees to submit extensive documentation, including proof of incorporation, federal tax-exempt status, financial audits, and more.
Those restrictions passed the council in June 2008, along with $56 million in grant designations. But a month later, a problem arose: Two councilmembers discovered that grantees they had sent money were having trouble getting their documentation together. So those members, Barry and Ward 1’s Jim Graham, proposed a workaround: If the grantees didn’t have their act together, the council would give the money to a nonprofit that did—a so-called “fiscal agent” that would in turn administer the money to the grantee. All members except for one—Carol Schwartz—voted to water down the rules.
No one made better use of the workaround than Barry. In addition to the six nonprofits he would later create, several other groups to which he sent money had to find fiscal agents.
Who was in charge of finding the fiscal agents? It wasn’t Gray or his office.
According to Goulet, any nonprofit that qualified under the new council rules could serve as a fiscal agent, and Barry’s office found a couple of them. A group called the Behavioral Environmental Academic Program (BEAP) was tasked with overseeing grants to five of the six Barry-created groups. The sixth was overseen by Lydia’s House; its co-founder, S. Patrice Sheppard, says that her group entered into the relationship at the request of Richardson. In a March 17 e-mail to Wise, Sheppard wrote, “I do business with you because Brenda Richardson has asked me to…. I only agreed to continue to work on this project based on my relationship with Brenda Richardson and concern for the community at large.”
###NEXT PAGE: Disputes on the Council.###
The makeshift oversight didn’t stop disputes from bubbling up to the council level. Goulet, for instance, called a meeting in early March to address issues with Wise’s groups—a meeting that included Richardson and at least two paid Barry staffers. Wise recorded the meeting on her cell phone (accidentally, she says).
The conversation begins with Goulet acting as an honest broker trying to get the parties to come to terms. Wise brings up Richardson’s involvement, and a Barry staffer says, “I know that for a fact, that when we first identified some funding sources for these type of programs, the councilmember wanted someone, and it ended up being Brenda, to coordinate these things and for the information to flow through her. So it’s not going to be an option to have her out of this.”
Later in the discussion, Richardson brings up Wise’s troubles with Colbert.
To that, Wise says, “Any time you…take $15,000 out of my salary that I have a contract for, hire somebody without my knowledge, and give it to them and say now they’re hired, then you should tell them what their assignment is.…”
“The councilmember did that,” Richardson says, according to the tape recording. “The councilmember did that!”
Goulet reacts immediately: “OK, I’m not hearing that.” His deputy, Justin Constantino, chimes in: “I do not want to hear that.” The council officials were wincing because of the appearance, if not the illegality, of a councilmember directing the spending of a city-funded nonprofit.
Says Goulet: “We’ve moved beyond the ideal of how this should work. I’m glad this is not on tape right now…but the councilmember should not be directly making decisions about these grant agreements.”
When asked about the meeting, Barry insisted that Wise had taped it illegally. “Anything that Brenda Richardson said, she misspoke,” says the councilmember.
After the meeting, Goulet sent an e-mail to all the attendees, referring to a resolution “that will allow us to move forward professionally in a way that will ensure that grant funds reach the community needs that they were intended for.” To that end, Goulet requested they come together to draft a budget and a written agreement on salaries and how group expenditures would be managed.
Goulet says none of that ever happened.
That’s because the Barry people resolved the issue by firing Wise. By late April, she had been pushed out of both groups under disputed circumstances. Richardson and others allege spending improprieties and that she has kept a computer meant for the nonprofits’ use; Wise says she’s owed more than $10,000 and is keeping the computer toward that balance.
On Monday, Wise was slated to attend a council hearing held by Councilmember David A. Catania investigating the role of fiscal agents in the grantmaking process. Sheppard also appeared, ready to testify, but Catania unexpectedly recessed the proceeding. In a short statement he read, Catania referred to many of the allegations in this article, first published Friday night on City Paper’s Web site, and announced his intention to have the Office of the Inspector General investigate the groups. According to a source, Wise has been contacted by IG and federal investigators.
Barry dismisses it all as the work of one disgruntled activist. “Just because [Wise] says it’s raining doesn’t mean it’s raining. She’s lying all over the place,” says Barry, who raises questions regarding Wise’s use of nonprofit funds.
* * *
How the groups are funded is one question. Another is: What do they do?
“They didn’t actually do anything,” says a source close to the nonprofits. “I think Brenda prepared a report that she would give to Barry. Brenda would prepare a schedule of activities and there was a list of people from Ward 8 to discuss various activities.”
Documentary evidence on the groups’ activities right now is thin. Searches of an IRS database reveal that none of the groups has yet secured nonprofit certification from the federal government and thus are not entitled to accept tax-deductible contributions, nor are they required to issue extensive, public reports to the federal government.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that some lessons in planning would go a long way. On July 13, for example, the Ward 8 Health Council was due to hold a board meeting. At the time the get-together was scheduled to start, however, only two people were in attendance, including a reporter from City Paper. No officials from the Ward 8 Health Council showed for the meeting. Minutes later, a building security guard appeared and notified the reporter that the meeting had been canceled. The reporter was ordered to leave the premises.
Sam Foster, a longtime activist on substance abuse issues and a Clean and Sober board member, once attended a gathering of the group: “At the time we went in the meeting, it was only three or four of us and we were just talking. I wouldn’t even call it a meeting. We didn’t stay that long,” he says. He hasn’t been back.
Other board members aren’t much more forthcoming. Lysandra Lawrence, who is on the board of directors of the Ward 8 Education Council, says, “We have a lot of missions. We have bylaws. We do have a mission and purpose. We have our initial goals to work with parents in the wards and schools.” Anthony Motley, on the board of the Workforce Development Council, says, “I know that we are a collaboration of organizations working to identify work opportunities and training for Ward 8 residents. We don’t train as far as I know. What we do is work with other organizations to do the training. I know that we’ve helped hundreds.”
City Paper has been able to obtain documentation from city authorities and from Wise on the activities of some of the groups:
• Clean and Green says it sponsored a series of “light litter clean ups” in Oxon Run Park, as well as a movie night, open-mic, and a Christmas event in that park. In addition, the group says it helped sign up 10 Ward 8 families to a city energy-saving program. The group also listed monthly meetings of the Ward 8 Environmental Council among its accomplishments. The report estimates “100 people served” during the first three months of 2009.
• Clean and Sober, according to Wise’s reports, organized a monthly meeting at Operation Hope in Anacostia. Wise also attended other meetings and mailed and distributed fliers to recruit folks to her meeting, intended to “make sure that access to recovery, treatment and prevention services are available to everyone.” The meetings were always catered, and attendees were often given $25 gift cards to cover transportation expenses.
• The Education Council says it held monthly meetings attended by as many as 30 people, as well as monthly parenting classes. The group also says it developed a “parenting guide” and that it sponsored a series of forums on the restructuring of Anacostia Senior High School.
• The Youth Leadership Council, according to reports from Wise, sponsored regular meetings and regularly took kids to the John A. Wilson Building for Gray’s monthly youth hearings. The group hosted a “Youth Leadership and Teen Challenge Lock-In” in January and an open-mic event in February. According to an April audit, 44 kids participated in the group’s activities; almost half listed Ward 7 addresses.
Millicent Williams, an official who oversees monies that flow to youth-oriented nonprofits, says the Youth Leadership Council and the Workforce Development Council had to submit extensive documentation before getting funds and that the trust has done “extensive monitoring,” including a financial audit of the Youth Leadership Council. “They are, in fact, quite in compliance,” she says.
Those words should please defenders of the council’s earmark program, which continues to roll the pork barrel out to the District’s neighborhoods. In the budget year starting this October, Barry-created groups Clean and Green, Clean and Sober, the Youth Leadership Council, and the Education Council each will receive another $75,000; the Health Council will get $50,000; and the Workforce Development Council will get $200,000.
In all, the D.C. Council has voted to give $1 million to these groups.
Says Barry, “All this was legitimate; all this was following my orders of accountability.”
Additional reporting by Jason Cherkis and Erik Wemple