City Paper is not for tourists
A little under a year ago, on a hot August night, LL joined a number of D.C. residents at the Takoma Park Baptist Church for a community meeting on a high-profile murder. On Aug. 9, a 36-year-old woman from Seattle named Katie Lynn Hill had been killed in an apparent robbery after walking out of the Takoma Metro station en route to a relative’s home in Takoma, D.C.
The murder occurred in the middle of primary season, so the event attracted the city’s leadership, including Mayor Anthony A. Williams, At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania, and Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian M. Fenty, who represents the surrounding neighborhood. One of Fenty’s constituents asked: Had law enforcement made an arrest in the case yet?
A week and a half later, Fenty helped spread the word that police had a suspect: Ballistic tests had matched a handgun used in the Hill murder with the slaying of a father and daughter in Silver Spring. Police found Hill’s camera in the suspect’s apartment, as well as some fountain pens, Fenty recalls. Hill had been visiting Washington while attending a pen collectors’ conference.
In May, a Montgomery County grand jury indicted Anthony Q. Kelly for the Silver Spring murders, as well as for a rape that occurred last summer in Wheaton. At the time, he was being held without bond for another rape case in Silver Spring. Yet the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, the city’s prosecuting arm, has yet to charge Kelly with anything. “That case is still in the investigative stage,” explains U.S. Attorney Roscoe C. Howard Jr.
Howard seems to make that statement quite a lot.
In just the last year, a number of high-profile cases that dominated local news coverage for weeks were referred to Howard’s office for possible criminal prosecution. And then, it seems, they were never heard about again:
•Soon after the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics booted Mayor Williams off the primary ballot for improprieties associated with his nominating petitions last summer, the board referred several cases to the Office of the U.S. Attorney, including that of petition coordinator Scott Bishop Sr. No charges have been filed against any of the errant signature-gatherers identified by the board.
•Charges have not been filed against former Washington Teachers’ Union President Barbara A. Bullock, and her executive assistant, Gwendolyn Hemphill, who are at the center of a scandal involving millions of dollars in missing union dues. A forensic audit commissioned by the union’s parent organization and an FBI affidavit alleged that Bullock and Hemphill made personal purchases on the union dime. Bullock’s driver, Leroy Holmes, and Michael Martin, Hemphill’s son-in-law, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to launder money and have been cooperating with investigators.
“I don’t know what’s taking so long to put silver handcuffs around these big fish,” says Catania.
•In the brewing scandal over lease deals between the city’s Office of Property Management and developer Douglas Jemal, D.C.’s investigative bodies have taken an interest: The FBI, the D.C. inspector general, the D.C. auditor, and the oversight committee chaired by Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham have all examined the case.
No word yet from Howard.
The U.S. attorney says that the case has been referred to his office and the FBI is examining, but that he cannot comment on ongoing investigations. “We get a lot of referrals. Those are the ones you read about,” answers Howard. “Last year we filed 22,000 cases. My guess is that people can’t [name] 100 of them.”
Howard’s pace has frustrated local officials interested in seeing alleged wrongdoers brought to justice. “I don’t know why it takes so goddamn long to get these indictments,” says At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson. “I don’t believe it serves anybody, including those under suspicion, to be protracting this.”
Mendelson shares that sentiment with Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, who publicly criticized Howard’s sluggishness after law-enforcement officials arrested sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. While prosecutors in surrounding jurisdictions quickly headed to court, Howard waited. “I don’t know exactly what it is the U.S. attorney’s office is waiting for,” Ramsey told the Washington Post at the time.
Howard occupies a unique spot in the city’s third branch of government. Because the District doesn’t have the authority to select its own chief enforcer of local laws, Howard has the task of prosecuting both federal and local crimes. That makes the U.S. attorney’s office here the largest in the country, with approximately 360 lawyers.
Howard received the appointment from President George W. Bush and was confirmed by the Senate on Sept. 14, 2001. He was a law professor at the University of Kansas until then, though he had served stints in U.S. attorneys’ offices in the District and Virginia earlier in his career. In his 22 months of service, he hasn’t exactly become a household name in D.C.’s hinterlands. When he shows up at community meetings, he excels at platitudes. “Osama bin Laden means nothing if you can’t be safe in your home,” Howard told attendees at the mayor’s Crime Summit I last year.
Howard’s recent predecessors, Eric Holder and Wilma Lewis, were more visible in the community, say observers. “I used to see Wilma Lewis out everywhere,” Fenty says.
“I’m not somebody who is campaigning for political office,” responds Howard. “I was appointed by the president to do this job. I don’t have ambitions to move on to a place where people know my name.”
Howard’s priorities have become a matter of concern at the council. While the Office of the U.S. Attorney has moved slowly on the cases cited above, it moved with uncharacteristic alacrity on a case cited by D.C. Inspector General Charles C. Maddox. The charge from Maddox’s office was that top officials in the city’s Board of Elections and Ethics and Office of Campaign Finance had given themselves illegal pay raises.
Howard convened a grand jury, which decided not to indict in the end. “Although we are declining prosecution, we nonetheless share your concern about the secretive and irregular manner in which these salary payments were obtained and the questionable legal basis for them,” Howard wrote to Maddox. “As we have discussed, we were also troubled by the lack of candor and cooperation exhibited by certain D.C. government employees during the course of the investigation.”
Councilmembers, who are not big Maddox fans, say that Howard’s involvement bordered on the improper. “I had concerns about the appropriateness of the office pursuing a case that looked a lot like a grudge match on the part of the IG,” says Ward 3’s Kathy Patterson. Some councilmembers believe that Maddox went after the elections and campaign finance officials because they’d been tough on Williams.
Home-rule purists say that a federal appointee has no interest in pursuing local cases. “My experience has led me to conclude that I’m very much in favor of an elected district attorney,” says Ward 1’s Graham. “We have next to no influence with the attorney general on property management or anything else. We ought not to have that situation.” When asked about the well-worn indifference-to-local-issues charge, Howard uses the standard D.C. line: “This is the nation’s capital. It’s not Tucson. It’s not Akron. This is a city that belongs to all of us. I’m here because I want to be. I’m here because I’m committed to this city. I’m here because I want to be a public servant.”
Howard hasn’t bought in enough to be a District resident, though: He lives in Fairfax. “I’ve got children that would be in public schools here. I didn’t want to put them in a situation where my kids were in classes with kids whose uncles I may be charging….I don’t want to put my kids through that,” he explains.
Last year, 82 percent of District voters approved a ballot referendum affirming their support for a locally elected district attorney. “My problem isn’t with Roscoe Howard as an individual. My problem is with the institution as it currently exists, in that there is not real accountability,” says Catania, who pushed the referendum. “Ultimately, the citizens of this city cannot remove him if he doesn’t do the job they want to be done.”
•At most D.C. Council meetings, coalitions on key issues are cemented long before roll call, leaving little legislative drama at the John A. Wilson Building chambers. Last week’s vote on Chief Ramsey’s pay raise was an exception: As the debate progressed, avowed Ramsey supporters dropped like D.C.’s revenue figures.
In a stream-of-consciousness riff worthy of James Joyce, Catania announced that he would break his word to Mayor Williams and council Chairman Linda W. Cropp and switch his vote to no. Moments later, so did Ward 8’s Sandy Allen. That brought the total number against the pay hike to six. One more naysayer and the police chief would have had to face the country’s 2.1 percent inflation rate with no help from city hall.
Ward 1’s Graham, who had recently become the Sandra Day O’Connor of the council, was in an odd position for a man who had served as the go-to guy for the Williams administration up until a few months ago. This spring, he’d morphed into the administration’s chief prosecutor in the Office of Property Management fiasco. Plus, the councilmember who represents Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, and Petworth had expressed many concerns about Ramsey’s leadership of the department, especially when it concerned staffing neighborhood patrols.
Ramsey foe Fenty decided to give his colleague a wake-up call. He passed a black phone on the dais to Graham: “John Aravosis is on the line,” Fenty told his Ward 1 colleague. Aravosis, a tireless public-safety activist, the manpower behind SafeStreetsDC.com, and a Ward 1 resident himself, had reached out and lobbied his councilmember many times about the chief.
Graham knew what Aravosis would tell him: Vote no.
A dial tone was at the other end. Fenty was a prankster.
In the end, Graham joined six other members and voted to give the chief a $25,000 raise. “[Ramsey] promised me a significant increase in deployment in Ward 1. I’m going to hold him to that promise,” he says.
•On Monday evening, Mayor Williams swore in appointed school-board nominees Carrie Thornhill and Robin B. Martin. Less than an hour later, the two newbies met the reality of their plum assignments.
“I want to express my grave concern that we are headed for a train wreck of major proportions, reminiscent of the days not so many years ago when D.C. public schools did not start on time,” Ward 3’s Patterson told the new members, as well as their colleagues, in a public forum on the D.C. Public Schools fiscal-year 2004 budget. “This time, though, it is likely not to be fire-code violations, but rather budget and staffing issues that impact the fall term, disrupting the lives of children and parents all across this city. That is my fear; that fear is why I’m here.”
Patterson went on to make three recommendations: Stop the freeze on step increases, seek to negotiate a six-month delay in pay raises, and make each D.C. public-school building a “competitive area.”
The members had no questions for Patterson. CP
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