For years, the knocks against Mayor Anthony A. Williams were easy to deconstruct. First, he lacked charisma. Then he wasn’t black enough. Then he couldn’t communicate with the people. In other words, he didn’t have the appeal of his predecessor, Marion S. Barry Jr.
These days, he still looks at the ground when shaking hands; he still disses people without even knowing it; he still dozes off at community meetings. Yet people all around the city are now comparing him to Barry.
It’s all in the scandals. On a weekend outing to Eastern Market, one D.C. politico approached LL and exclaimed that the Williams administration was worse than any under Barry. Another claimed that Williams has brought the city more embarrassment. What this proves is how little Williams has changed the civic culture. In 1998, the conversation focused on which of the candidates was the most unlike Barry. Five years later, he’s still the benchmark. Now the question is whether Williams is worse than his discredited predecessor.
The comparisons began in earnest last week, when Williams said goodbye to another cabinet member: Timothy F. Dimond, head of the city’s Office of Property Management (OPM). His resignation was announced one day before the Washington Post reported that Dimond’s handpicked No. 2, Michael Lorusso, had charged $444,000 in purchases on a D.C.-government credit card in the course of 19 months.
Lorusso had already attracted the attention of various members of the D.C. Council, the D.C. auditor, and even the FBI. Starting last September, questions arose over a Lorusso-brokered deal that called for the District to fork over $12.5 million to developer Douglas Jemal for a 37-acre property in Prince George’s County, which the city had already been renting as its vehicle-impoundment lot. How did an unimproved piece of land that Jemal bought for $1.5 million in 1998 appreciate so much in so little time? It seemed unbelievableand turned out to be so. The appraisal that the purchase price was based on factored in a nine-year lease extension, valued at nearly $1 million per year, that city officials had never approved.
That irregularity led to further examination of other Lorusso-Jemal business, which unearthed Italian-furniture purchases, inflated lease prices, and a $929,000 payment for office space that the city has yet to occupy.
So, to recap: You have a developer looking for sweetheart deals from the D.C. government, a paper trail documenting a bogus lease, and a mayoral appointee playing fast and loose with taxpayer money while no one seemed to mind the store. Barry and his cronies, to be sure, took part in comparable foul-ups. But before we declare the new boss the same as the old boss, Williams needs to beef up his record in one key area: partying.
Buoyed by the Post’s endorsement, Barry won his first mayor’s race in 1978. He was an energetic reformer with charm and a masterful sense of finance. Just months into his second term, however, the local press started reporting stories about Barry’s penchant for good times. His attendance at a Christmas party held at the strip joint This Is It generated Metropolitan Police Department paperwork that eventually made its way to the feds.
Thus began a decadelong cat-and-mouse game between Barry, the press, and law- enforcement authorities. Every so often, a new woman popped up in the news in connection with the city’s chief executive. When confronted with allegations of his dalliances, Barry always had a creative explanation.
•In August 1984, Barry acknowledged having a “personal relationship” with city employee Karen K. Johnson, who had pleaded guilty to charges of cocaine distribution and possession.
•In March 1987, the mayor’s Lincoln Town Car arrived in front of former model Grace T. Shell’s Capitol Hill apartment. Out popped Barry, wearing a blue velour jogging suit and a hat inscribed with “Mayor.” Barry later explained that he had stopped by to visit with Shell’s 3-year-old son.
•In June 1996, during Barry’s fourth term, federal authorities raided the home of Roweshea Burruss, where the mayor occasionally stopped during the day. Law-enforcement agencies had been looking at Burruss’ house as a center of illegal activities. “I’ve probably been by his house a half-dozen times this year,” Barry said at the time. “That’s about it. Sometimes I run by there to change clothes. I went by to have a quick sandwich.”
Hmmm. What’s the Williams lunchtime equivalent? The Lincoln Navigator parked in front of the Brookings Institution, where Williams drops in on Alice Rivlin or E.J. Dionne?
And when Williams visits a local hotel, it’s generally to discuss the fate of the American city with academics and policy nerds. In January 1990, Barry dropped by a hotel with quite different results: He was busted by the FBI for smoking a crack pipe in Room 727 at the Vista Hotel.
Williams hasn’t tarnished the District’s reputation with his personal behavior, unless you’re counting his awkwardness in public settings. Instead, he’s accomplished much the same thing with his political record. A quick capsule:
•A handful of campaign-finance violations in his first term, including the nondisclosure of contracts during his first campaign, improprieties regarding the school-board referendum, and less-than-kosher ways of raising money through nonprofits.
•The inflated résumés and poor performance of former cabinet members like Robert Newman and Ronnie Few.
•The famous nominating petition debacle.
•The current property-management case.
Several referrals have been made to the U.S. attorney.
Barry had his problems with contracting and cronyism, but he also had a lot more time to rack them up: four terms in the mayor’s office, to be precise. Again, the highlights:
•In December 1985, former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Ivanhoe Donaldson, a Barry political adviser and confidant, pleaded guilty to defrauding the government by skimming $190,000 from city contracts.
•In 1986 and 1987, the FBI conducted a sting operation focused on corruption in D.C. government contracting. The investigation focused on John Clyburn, a close friend of Barry’s, and David E. Rivers, a Barry-appointed director of the city’s Department of Human Services. Both were acquitted of bribery and conspiracy charges three years later.
•In May 1987, former Deputy Mayor for Finance Alphonse G. Hill pleaded guilty to defrauding the government by steering at least $260,000 in government contracts to a friend’s firm and to tax evasion.
So those are the facts. Whether you’re a Williams defender or detractor, there are plenty of data on the public record to massage for your own polemical ends. One point remains: The District manages to produce leaders uniquely capable of generating bad press for the city and frustrating its citizens’ quest for voting rights.
They just have different ways of doing the same thing. Barry got in trouble for having too many friendshe charmed the women he visited and the voters he courted.
Williams seems to get in trouble for not having enough: The petition debacle occurred because the campaign relied on paid name-gatherers rather than the dedicated army of volunteers that enlisted in the Williams cause in 1998. They weren’t so eager to give up their leisure time for him last summer.
When asked during his June 11 press conference how he came to select Dimond as OPM director, Williams was clueless. He didn’t know what Dimond did before D.C. government or how he even came to the job.
•Activists routinely hammer Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey for protecting the downtown core at the expense of underpatrolled neighborhoods. Ramsey and his advocates in the mayor’s office insist that’s not so.
LL agrees: In addition to watching over the World Bank and Riggs Bank, Ramsey also does a lot for the ambassadors of Brazil, Costa Rica, and Chile.
And now, the Williams folks want the embassy crowd to speak up for the chief. Last week, an e-mail signed by Christia Alou, Williams’ interim director of the Office of Latino Affairs, was sent to various Latin American embassies and nonprofits. The missive encouraged them to testify favorably for Ramsey at Tuesday’s D.C. Council hearing.
Apparently, Alou doesn’t follow the issue too closely: “From what I understand, the Chief’s salary will be increased to more than $200,000 annually, from the low $100,000 that it is presently,” reads the e-mail. The facts: Ramsey’s current salary is $150,000, and his proposed raise is $25,000.
“Chief Ramsey has been doing an excellent job, and we want to keep him in the District,” writes Alou.
Williams spokesperson Tony Bullock says the e-mail was improperly forwarded by Ramsey boosters in the Office of Latino Affairs. “The original e-missive was intended for a very small audience,” says Bullock. “It was a mistake; they screwed up.”
• D.C. Public Library Director Molly Raphael has differed with the library’s board of trustees over certain issues, including the fate of the Mies van der Rohe-designed central library. Many trustees consider the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library an architectural gem; Raphael sees it as a structurally challenged metal box.
Library trustees also seem to have a difference of opinion with Raphael over another matter: her long-term employment plans. When she met with trustees earlier this spring, many heard Raphael say she was committed to staying in D.C. But news stories in Portland’s Oregonian suggest Raphael has other ideas. Last Friday, Multnomah County Chair Diane Linn named Raphael as the only finalist for director of the county’s library system, which includes Portland.
“I wasn’t job-searching, but Multnomah County is quite a special system,” Raphael told Oregonian reporter S. Renee Mitchell in a story earlier this month.
“The notion that Molly would never leave this job is kind of ridiculous, says library spokesperson Monica Lofton. “Molly has worked for this system for more than 32 years. Her commitment speaks for itself.” CP
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