Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry’s July 4 arrest capped a particularly tumultuous week in his relationship with Donna Watts-Brighthaupt.
On the previous Monday, June 29, Barry made a last-ditch offer to maintain his relationship with the woman he had been dating for a year. A key part of his offer was cash: In an e-mail typed and sent that afternoon by aide Brenda Richardson and signed by Barry, he offers Watts-Brighthaupt a part-time job working with Richardson—-a job that could pay her as much as $55,000 over the next year.
“I told you today that I thought I could work out a way for you to work with Brenda Richardson whom you like and trust, to work 20 to 25 hours a week for the next three months for $5,000 a month. And I also promise you that I will work out a way for the next 12 months for at least $40,000. Thus we will have $55,000 in the pot.”
The proposed arrangement was separate from all of Barry’s previous financial dealings with Watts-Brighthaupt: A $5,000-per-month contract he had given her the previous fall out of his council office fund, and $600 that city records indicate she was paid out of campaign funds.
The context of Barry’s offer was “Saving Your Life,” to quote the first line of the e-mail. Saving her, that is, from the cervical cancer she’d had for the past 12 years, which had recurred in February, prompting a new round of chemotherapy and other medical treatment.
“We all want you to live,” Barry wrote. “Not only to live, but to be happy and healthy. (God is the final decider.) Therefore, you must treat saving your life as the highest priority ever.” To that end, Barry told Watts-Brighthaupt that she needed “to find a way to remove all stress out of your life.” And the main stressor was money.
That night, Watts-Brighthaupt drafted a three-page reply to Barry.
In it, she complains that a proposal she had drafted the previous November pursuant to the $5,000-per-month contract was not taken seriously by Barry or his staff. Her desire for professional validation permeates the letter: Barry’s chief of staff, Bernadette Tolson, Watts-Brighthaupt wrote, had “little respect for me professionally.” She expresses great respect for Richardson, Barry’s top outreach person, and indeed asks to work with her on the condition that she be allowed to “attend most meetings in a working capacity” and that she be “allowed to share observations and ideas with [Barry] concerning relevant policy and public relations privately in the way in which I (we) are accustomed – debate style.”
For this, she asked “for only enough compensation to keep the necessary lines of communications wide open, i.e., cell and home telephone bills.”
Watts-Brighthaupt bristled at the suggestion in the Barry offer that they were paying her as a personal favor. And she rejected the proposal. “I feel as if I’m selling my soul to you for the tax payer’s dollar,” she wrote.
Both messages were provided to City Paper by Watts-Brighthaupt; a review of the computer file containing her reply indicates that the document was written and last revised on June 29, the night it was sent.
The clash outlined in the back-and-forth memos was baked into the Barry-Watts-Brighthaupt relationship from the start. The problem related to goals: Watts-Brighthaupt wanted meaningful work; Barry wanted her.
Watts-Brighthaupt says she originally approached the legendary D.C. pol because she wanted to steep herself in the parochial yet fascinating politics of her own ward. Barry was the perfect mentor, a man whose past scandals only seemed to help him with Ward 8 voters, many of whom were on some form of public assistance. Barry fashioned himself a champion of the “last, the least, and the lost.”
The two met at the June kickoff for Barry’s successful 2008 re-election campaign. Watts-Brighthaupt introduced herself to Barry by pointing out that there was a typo in a card soliciting campaign contributions. The councilmember took kindly to the attention, inviting Watts-Brighthaupt to his home for dinner. He served up deep-fried perch, okra, and cornbread.
The next day, the Barry campaign came to Watts-Brighthaupt’s block. Ever the showman, the 72-year-old went from door to door with Watts-Brighthaupt in his wake, soaking up pointers on retail politics. That week, Barry came by just about every day, recalls Watts-Brighthaupt. Soon she was chauffeuring him around town. “I loved driving him around more than anything,” she says. “I didn’t have stars in my eyes. I was in awe of how he got treated. I’m telling you, I can’t believe it. It was royalty.”
Tours through Ward 8 neighborhoods were exactly what Watts-Brighthaupt, 40, wanted out of the relationship. She received a political science degree from the University of the District of Columbia in 2006 and was eager to apply her education in a real-life setting.
Watts-Brighthaupt was paid meagerly for her services during the campaign—-the previously mentioned $600, according to campaign finance records. The perks, however, sustained her. Barry took her out to eat all the time—-breakfasts at Ward 8’s proprietary IHOP and dinners at pricey Ristorante La Perla in the West End and McCormick & Schmick’s at 9th and F Streets NW. There were also sleepovers at Barry’s house. The two would stay up late debating politics, often getting into good-natured arguments. Then they’d fall asleep on the couch watching Barry’s favorite channel, Fox News.
“I didn’t think he even thought of pursuing romance because of his health,” says Watts-Brighthaupt, in an apparent reference to a 1995 surgery in which the politician’s prostate gland was removed. “I thought he’d play as far as he could go given his health.”
Watts-Brighthaupt also got a free ride to the Democratic National Convention in August, though that junket presaged the developing storminess in their relationship. Barry and Watts-Brighthaupt shared a room, an intimate setting in which she says Barry demanded oral sex. When she didn’t oblige, he threw her out of the room, along with her clothes. She took refuge in a rented Cadillac in the hotel parking garage.
They reconciled to the point that Watts-Brighthaupt journeyed with Barry to Jamaica following his September victory in the Democratic primary. In the fall, it was time to talk about putting Watts-Brighthaupt to work. She discussed a project with Tolson, though the session hardly inspired Watts-Brighthaupt. “I felt like she thought I was just a bimbo getting a contract because I was with him,” she recalls.
By late October, the project had crystallized into a “poverty reduction” contract that would pay Watts-Brighthaupt $5,000 a month. “I was so excited, like a kid at Christmas,” she says.
Complete with hokey nonprofit moniker—-Young Emerging Leaders—-the program was designed to train Ward 8 residents to tackle social problems in their neighborhoods. Watts-Brighthaupt says she sunk herself into the work, banging out a manifesto on the ward’s needs. “With a high dropout rate, below grade-level scores, single mothers actually believing they should ‘do bad all by themselves,’ the thinning commradery of our families and communities and other key areas where true leaders are now—-right now!….and where emerging leaders will be in dire need as conditions persist.” Watts-Brighthaupt traveled around the ward, surveyed people in its various communities, and otherwise pursued “the work I always wanted since I graduated from college.”
Then it ended. In early December, Barry instructed the council to terminate Watts-Brighthaupt’s payments. Later in the month, he turned around and requested immediate reinstatement. At this point, council procurement documents had become the best way to monitor the vicissitudes of the Barry–Watts-Brighthaupt relationship.
Watts-Brighthaupt’s work consisted of attending community meetings to pass out brochures, picking out potential lecturers, and programming events. She was also fighting with Barry over how the program should be run. She wanted to launch a series of seminars with speeches by leading thinkers on poverty. Barry wanted to occupy one-third of the speaking slots. “He just wanted a group of people to hear him speak,” she says.
As the discussions wore on, it became clear to Watts-Brighthaupt that Barry didn’t share her view that Young Emerging Leaders was a serious social program. In one memorable spat, she wanted to install a board of directors to guide the organization. Barry brushed aside the suggestion. “It would be checks and balances,” she explains. “He said that’s not needed.”
The program never came to fruition. There were no lectures given or future leaders recruited. Watts-Brighthaupt was paid $15,000 in total, she says.
The aborted initiative left Watts-Brighthaupt feeling dismayed. She’d hoped for a launching pad for her career. Instead, she says, “He was more into me than that project.”
That’s the context for the June 29 offer from the councilmember to “save” her with more contract cash. Watts-Brighthaupt wasn’t going to endure another procurement episode with the Barry camp. “I want to make it perfectly clear,” she wrote to the councilmember, “that although it is greatly needed, financial assistance under your conditions would not be the proper avenue to take.”
Attempts to get Barry’s side of the story were unsuccessful. Tolson and Richardson refused to comment. Washington City Paper sent the June 29 correspondence to Barry spokesperson Natalie Williams in an effort to get a comment. Williams declined to comment at this time. At yesterday’s press conference, Barry refused to respond to any questions about contracts with Watts-Brighthaupt.