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Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr. doesn’t have a lot of venues for stoking political fires. He’s not the chair of a major committee, and his Special Committee on Vocational Education and Jobs for District Residents held just one hearing last year. His biggest attention-grabber was probably the press conference he called after he reported being robbed by two men in his old apartment.
In search of a political agenda, Barry appears to have settled on minority and small-business contracting. Boosting support for local minority firms through more vigorous churning of the government till has always been a popular stance in the city. So when Barry recently saw that the interim director of the D.C. Office of Local and Small Business Development was scheduled to testify at the John A. Wilson Building, Barry probably figured he had an easy mark.
What he got was some spirited and confrontational combat from a public servant unwilling to accept attacks from an ethically challenged political icon. At the Feb. 21 meeting, the small business office interim director, Jacquelyn Flowers, gave a rare display of push-back from a bureaucrat called to the mat. At the session, sponsored jointly by the Committee on Government Operations and the Committee on Public Works and the Environment, Flowers came under questioning with regard to a contract for trash and recycling pickup awarded to TAC Transportation LLC. The company has been certified as a local small, disadvantaged business enterprise by Flowers’ shop, even though the bulk of its operations are in Maryland.
One of the companies TAC beat out is Urban Service Systems Inc., an outfit run by long-time Barry loyalist Dickie Carter. During Barry’s first mayoral term, a young Carter’s fledgling waste-hauling firm won a big city garbage contract under a program designed to support minority-owned firms. Before the arrival of a Barry administration, Carter had been thwarted in his efforts to win government business.
When Barry’s turn to grill the witness came around, he slammed Flowers for reportedly failing to comply with document requests from the Local Business Opportunity Commission (LBOC), which monitors D.C. government agencies for compliance with minority-contracting laws. Flowers responded that she had complied with the commission’s requests. “You cooperated fully each time they asked you a question?” Barry asked Flowers. “Yes,” she said, rolling her eyes before delivering her response.
The former mayor then picked an interesting line of interrogation: He said the TAC contract “appeared” to have been awarded under questionable circumstances. TAC’s bid on the waste contract arrived just before the deadline for applications. “The appearance of this [contract] is this was wired,” Barry said to Flowers with disgust. “And I don’t like that at all.”
Flowers didn’t miss a beat. “Well, first of all, let me be very clear, because my reputation is all I have.” But she was immediately cut off by an angry Barry. “Ms. Flowers, I don’t need a speech,” Barry shouted. “I don’t need to hear that! I don’t want to hear it!”
“Well you should, when you imply people have done things illegally,” Flowers shot back before delivering the knockout punch: “I’m not taking a page out of your book.”
“What are you talkin’ about?” Barry asked, and as Flowers tried to respond, he began a loud rant that drowned her out: “What! Are! You! Talking about!” Barry yelled.
Replied Flowers: “I am not having someone imply that I am wiring contracts in the District. I take that as a personal affront to my reputation.”
But Barry remained fixated on the witness’s reference to him. “What do you mean ‘a page out of my book?’” Barry asked. He paused, fixed a stern gaze on Flowers, and firmly but quietly said, “I dare you to say it.” On this point, Flowers was willing to play the role of compliant government employee. “Well, we’re going to let you figure out what I meant,” she said. That’s not too hard—just take a short stroll down D.C. History Lane: During most of his four terms as mayor, Barry’s minions funneled millions of dollars of government spending to key political supporters and allies. Key acolytes such as Cornelius Pitts and R. Donahue Peebles got some love from contracting officials under Barry, for gigs ranging from running a hotel for the homeless to collecting rent checks as landlords for downtown District offices. His program to use the government to enhance minority-business development was praised as groundbreaking. But it was also criticized by the General Accountability Office for steering contracts to relatively few established minority firms.
From there the exchange devolved into a schoolyard spat.
Barry: “I resent your attitude.”
Flowers: “Well, I resent the implication.”
Barry: “And I resent your attitude.”
Flowers: “Well, fine. We’re even”
Barry: “You shouldn’t be working for this government with that attitude. You ought to resign now.”
Flowers: “Well, I don’t work for you.”
Why wasn’t Flowers a bit more congenial? Because she had nothing to lose by jawboning with Barry. His call for her resignation, in fact, was a touch late. Four days before the hearing, she’d already offered her resignation to the guy she does work for: Mayor Anthony A. Williams. But nobody bothered to tell Barry—or any other councilmember for that matter. Even At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown, who runs the Special Committee on a Comprehensive Policy for Local, Small and Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (LSDBEs), had to learn of her decision to step down from a reporter with the Washington Examiner last week. Mayoral spokesperson Vincent Morris says Flowers plans to leave the government in May.
She might as well leave now—not to avoid Barry’s rage but because she’s achieved the ultimate bureaucrat’s victory. Any brilliant moments during her final months in government can’t possibly outshine her crowning political achievement. She’s realized the dream of many a frustrated mayoral appointee by scoring a knockdown on a councilmember who had tormented her and tried to tarnish her good name.
Barry, who refused to comment on his altercation with Flowers, wasted ink and more time on a scathing Feb. 28 letter to the mayor demanding that Flowers resign. “I’ve never seen a staff person treat an elected official with such total disrespect. That elected official was me!” Barry wrote. He called Flowers “incompetent, arrogant, combative and insultive.”
LBOC chair Darrin Glymph says Flowers has fully cooperated with his oversight panel. “Every request for information I sent to her office was granted,” he says. In fact, Flowers’ only role in contracting is to certify small and disadvantaged businesses, not to select contractors. According to Morris, contracts awarded to small businesses have grown from $68 million in 1999 to $450 million in 2005.
The Barry-Flowers joust was no surprise to those following the work of Brown’s special committee, a vehicle that the councilmembers from Wards 7 and 8 have used to run down the Williams administration for not directing more money to small local firms. Both Barry and Brown have questioned Flowers’ effectiveness as a promoter of small business.
Flowers’ poor attitude toward certain councilmembers dates back to last November. During a hearing of Brown’s special committee, Barry accused Flowers of violating a 2005 law that had ended the practice of granting temporary certification to LSDBEs. Flowers admitted that temporary certifications were granted until October 2005, more than two months after the new law had gone into effect, but she refused to say her office did not follow the law.
Barry’s response to Flowers’ mental gymnastics was short and to the point. “You willfully violated the law,” he told Flowers. Her reply was unconciliatory and an indirect swipe at Barry. “I’ve never been called a criminal before,” she said. “One of the things I do have is integrity….I think it is important since my predecessor, who was Gerald Draper, was convicted and incarcerated. So I want the record to be very clear about my name.”
Bringing up Draper guaranteed the Barry–Flowers relationship wouldn’t ever have a respectful tone. During his final term as mayor, Barry had tapped Draper to boost opportunities for small, minority-owned businesses in the city. Draper apparently helped himself in the process. In 1999, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and departed the government as one of the highest ranking Barry-era officials to be convicted of corruption. Press reports indicate Draper created a company of his own that cheated the city out of $110,000.
But the reference to Draper didn’t stop Barry from delivering an ethics lesson. He reminded Flowers that not following the law carries consequences. “I take my own personal case,” Barry said in reference to his 1990 conviction on misdemeanor drug-possession charges. “When I violated the law I had to suffer the consequences.” Flowers replied, “I don’t think my situation can be compared to yours.”
Flowers might have gotten in her shots, but Brown takes some credit for her decision to step down. “After all our hard work on the special committee, finally there are going to be some changes over at that department,” says Brown. “Some heads are going to roll.”
And the TAC Transportation contract award is on hold. In an e-mail, Deputy Mayor for Operations Herbert Tillery writes that the administration has “pulled” the contract for now, pending further review. Morris says the administration feels TAC was properly certified as an LSDBE by Flowers, but that it wants to study the contract in more detail.
Flowers, who is one of the longest-serving members of the Williams administration, did not return calls seeking comment. City Administrator Robert Bobb says she did not resign “because of confrontations with any councilmembers.” The mayor “did not push her out the door,” says Bobb. “She did her job, and she did it well.”—James Jones
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