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Marion S. Barry Jr. knows a lot about spending money he doesn’t have.
As mayor, he approved the massive budgets that sent the District into a financial free fall. The solid ground came when Congress imposed a financial control board and stripped Barry of most of his mayoral powers.
And when Barry resurfaced last year as a candidate for a Ward 8 D.C. Council seat, so did his signature accounting methods. At a June 12, 2004, kickoff event, Barry and his associates gathered $20 bills from eager supporters. He fought with staffers about check-writing procedures and treated his treasurers like temps.
The financial shenanigans, however, didn’t hurt the four-term mayor at the polls, where he trounced incumbent Sandy Allen by 33 points in the decisive Democratic primary. On Election Night, the whole city, it seemed, showed up outside Barry campaign headquarters to party down.
Now the hangover is setting in. At a May 12 “Retire the Debt Party” at Georgia Brown’s, Barry told the crowd that his 2004 campaign was “about $25,000” in the red. He said most of those bills were “salaries and rent.”
Lots of politicians run up debts in the heat of election season. Barry calls the unpaid bills “very normal. Talk to anybody who’s run a campaign.”
Yet there’s something abnormal about Barry’s campaign debt: He never came up with a proper accounting of it. The Barry for Ward 8 committee’s Jan. 31, 2005, report to the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) indeed reports a campaign deficit. Of $50, that is. How the debt grew to $25,000 from Feb. 1 to May 12during a period when there was no campaign in operationmust have something to do with Barry’s self-proclaimed financial wizardry.
There are only two possible explanations for the discrepancy between what Barry reported to the campaign-finance office and what he told his supporters at Georgia Brown’s. He either (1) filed an inaccurate report or (2) decided to make good on promises to campaign staff months after election day.
Renee Coleman-Bunn, the audit manager at the OCF, says if Barry negotiated salaries for campaign workers, that should have shown up in the Jan. 31 report.
“If promises were made, there is going to have to be a paper trail,” Coleman-Bunn says. “That should have been reported as debt….He owed them money.” If any of those debts were acquired prior to Jan. 31, Coleman-Bunn says, “by statute, they should have been reported.”
Barry could have negotiated salaries after Jan. 31. But that seems like a long wait for a campaign team that walked away with the big Sept. 14, 2004, primary victory and then cheered the coronation at the Nov. 2 general election. Sources say that the rent component of the Barry debt amounts to at least $6,000, but the lease agreement has not been provided to the OCF.
One former member of Barry’s campaign team actually knows how much he’s owed: Barry’s first campaign manager, Dion Jordan, won a $1,480 judgment against the candidate in small-claims court. “No effort has been made to pay me what has been owed,” Jordan says, adding that Barry and he agreed to salary terms “on a handshake agreement.”
The Washington Post reported in February that the court had ordered that the outstanding debt to Jordan be garnished from Barry’s $92,500 council salary. But Jordan says he has not taken steps to get his money using that authority.
Jordan can’t recall any written employment agreements during the Barry campaign.
The handshake approach works nicely for Barry. Coleman-Bunn says some of his 2004 campaign records show a lack of attention to detail. One report simply lists the amount of dollars that were collected but does not list the donors. The office is scheduled to conduct a routine audit sometime this year.
The auditors will earn their money poring over Barry documents. The campaign’s first treasurer, Laura Goggans, resigned on June 25, 2004, claiming Barry asked her to sign blank checks. Goggans is Jordan’s mother. Jordan claims she joined the campaign when Barry couldn’t convince anyone else to take the treasurer post. Jordan got the boot shortly after his mother left.
Barry’s second treasurer didn’t work out so well, either.
The councilmember fired Vanessa J. Robinson on April 1, 2005. She had prepared most of the reports for the 2004 campaign, including the one filed Jan. 31 that showed a debt roughly the size of a dinner for four at Ben’s Chili Bowl.
In a letter to Robinson that is part of Barry’s campaign file, the councilmember wrote that she was ordered to resign “due to unauthorized withdrawals from the Barry for Ward 8 Council banking account.” In an interview, Barry says Robinson “was going through some personal problems” during the campaign and was “just not up to the job.”
Robinson says she still supports Barry, adding that “family issues” and her inexperience made the treasurer’s post “a much more difficult job than I expected….I was kind of learning as I went along.”
Robinson suspects there’s a long line of people waiting for some payment from Barry.
“There were people who were working who were not getting paid,” Robinson says. “We were dedicated to him getting his position. We worked without pay for a long time. Most of his staff were working for free, and he didn’t have any money.”
“Mr. Barry knows the situation,” Robinson says. “He wants to make sure the people working for him are compensated….He knows the salaries he set up for the different employees.”
If campaign-finance officials want to pry into salary details, they may face some tight-lipped Barryites.
Barry’s new campaign-committee treasurer, Robert James, declined to comment.
None of Barry’s campaign staff who drew salaries during the campaign would talk about the debt or their prospects of getting a victory bonus.
Velda Bell became the campaign field director after Jordan left and now serves as Barry’s deputy chief of staff. Bell wouldn’t comment when asked if she expected a windfall from Barry’s verbal report of unpaid salaries.
Barry’s chief of staff, Linda Greene, essentially ran the campaign and was at Barry’s side throughout the race. She’s his spokesperson now, and Barry suggested that LL talk to her about the debt. But she clammed up when asked about the matter and refused to say if she’s owed any campaign cash.
If the Georgia Brown’s fundraiser is any indication, Barry won’t have any trouble making good on his $25,000 in promises. Holding a council seat wins you lots of friends, and any lobbyist who’s graduated from training wheels knows helping a politician erase debt has a way of opening doors.
The party was the handiwork of D.C. political rainmaker Kerry Pearson, who delivered lots of fat cats to nosh on catfish and fried green tomatoes, not to mention write checks. The room was filled mostly with representatives of the restaurant industry. Paul Cohn, who runs Georgia Brown’s, was listed as Pearson’s co-host.
Barry sits on the Committee on Public Works and the Environment, a panel that will soon consider legislation to ban smoking in bars and restaurants. Barry, who says he opposes a smoking ban, is a key vote.
The sugar daddies stepping up to help Barry clear his campaign tab are working to keep Barry in their camp.
First in line: Andrew Kline, attorney for Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington (RAMW). LL saw him scratch out a $500 check for the debt-retirement party. Lynne Breaux, RAMW’s executive director, was there, too. Corporate sponsorship of the event was dominated by the hospitality industry: the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., Capital Restaurant Concepts, and Clyde’s Restaurant Group led the pack.
Pearson told the crowd he and Cohn put the event together in “a couple of weeks,” adding, “I cannot tell you how easy it was to raise this money.” He told Barry, “I am confident this event will end your debt.”
In his remarks to the crowd, Barry reminded his supporters of the many projects they had tackled together during his days as mayor. He noted that the rest of the council can’t really compete with the crafty ways of a wily veteran.
“I know more than all of them,” he said. “They have to work harder to keep up with where I am. That’s good for the city.”
BLOCKING THE CHAW TAX
You can’t blame a guy for wanting to kick back and relax with a bit of chewing tobacco now and then. Especially if the price is right.
For as long as Capitol Hill odd-jobber Erich Shea has lived in the District, he’s been able to pop into the neighborhood convenience store and grab a tin of Kodiak for four to five bucks.
He enjoys his dip unencumbered by the excise taxes on noncigarette tobacco products imposed by Maryland, Virginia, and 46 other states. For now, D.C. is a chewer’s tax haven.
You can credit that fair price to an ever-changing alliance of D.C. councilmembers who have thwarted efforts to tax chewing tobacco, loose rolling tobacco, and cigars.
On four occasions, At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson has brought up legislation to impose a 15 percent excise tax on spitters. The proposed rate would be equal to Maryland’s. Each time, the bill has failed by a 7-6 vote.
The list of jurisdictions that keep chaw, cigars, and loose rolling tobacco tax-free has dwindled to D.C., Pennsylvania, and tobacco-rich Kentucky. A tax in the Bluegrass State takes effect in August. “I usually think of the District as a progressive jurisdiction. We are at the back of the pack [on this issue],” Mendelson says.
Mendelson wants a tax to discourage young people from joining that elite club of tobacco users who put a pinch between cheek and gum, mumble incoherently, and spit into whatever receptacle suits them. It is a habit admired by women everywhere.
But Mendelson just can’t seem to get it done. His latest effort to tax noncigarette tobacco products failed by one vote on May 10, when he proposed attaching it to the fiscal 2006 budget bill. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evanswho has rarely met a tax increase he could supportopposed imposing the tax on the noble chewing public. He says the city must be vigilant about protecting its few competitive advantages.
“We don’t have a tax on these products,” Evans argued, “and as a result there is a market here. Once you raise that rate to match Maryland’s, the market will disappear.”
Evans, who chairs the Committee on Finance and Revenue, also says studies show taxes on tobacco products don’t significantly curtail use. “Phil and others are under the mistaken idea that by raising taxes on tobacco products, people stop using them,” Evans says. “They just don’t.”
Chaw man Shea seconds Evans’ analysis. He says raising the price of a tin by 60 cents or so won’t stop him from grabbing his can of Kodiak. If Virginia has lower prices, Shea’s Kodiak-purchasing pattern will mirror his gasoline-buying behavior. “If I’m in Virginia where gas is cheaper, I fill up, but usually I get gas in my neighborhood. The same goes for chew. I might stock up when I’m out there, but I won’t make a special trip.”
Each year, LL himself goes through about 10 tins of Skoal, the minimum dose necessary to cope with an overbearing editor. The savings he realizes by buying in the District comes to about six bucks annually.
If only the councilmembers can continue to create bizarre scenarios to stop Mendelson’s chew-taxing ways.
His failure this time around is particularly perplexing. When it comes to the chaw tax, Mendelson is like the Chicago Cubs, a team that seems to continually find new, more improbable ways to lose. In its most recent defeat, one of the bill’s co-introducers, At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, voted against it. So did three co-sponsors of the legislation: At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown, Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray, and Council Chairman Linda Cropp.
Mendelson has a hard time understanding his losing streak. In this case, he suspects Evans’ opposition was the key. “It’s always harder to go against the committee chair,” Mendelson says. Evans’ Committee on Finance and Revenue considers all tax bills. Still, Mendelson maintains, “I’d be embarrassed to vote against something to control tobacco….Maybe they just weren’t paying attention.”
Gray says he finds the chaw habit disgusting but that he was reluctant to support the bill because Mendelson did not tie any new revenue from the tax to a particular program. Brown makes the same argument, saying that just passing new money through the general fund amounts to “letting the mayor decide how to spend it.”
Gray has an easy solution for Mendelson’s frustration: earmarking. Maybe if the estimated $500,000 in extra revenue went to underserved portions of the cityWard 7, for instanceGray might be able to overlook D.C.’s lost market for those vile tobacco-sucking hordes.
“My suggestion is to connect a part of this new tax to a portion of the Francis A. Gregory Library improvements [in Ward 7],” Gray says.
Mendelson has another tried-and-true angle: spin his tax as a de facto levy on illegal drug use.
The proposed tax also applies to small, sweet cigars called blunts. In some neighborhoods, the cheap, plastic-tipped cigars are used to roll really big joints. The proposed excise tax could serve as a kind of paraphernalia tax.
Dennis Akwa, who runs the Tiger Mart at an upper Georgia Avenue NW Exxon station, says he doesn’t sell much chew these days. “It is mostly military,” he says, and “mostly white.” James Jones
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