When Korean-American liquor store owner Chang Pak knocked an African-American teen unconscious during a robbery of his Georgia Avenue NW store in August, U.S. Attorney Wilma Lewis pursued Pak with all the fervor of Kenneth Starr tracking down witnesses to President Clinton’s oral sexploits.
Responding to questionable eyewitness accounts that Pak had stood over the fallen teen and beaten him mercilessly with a baseball bat, Lewis pushed to have Pak held without bond as a threat to the community. The teen, arrested for attempted armed robbery of the store, was allowed to go free pending trial.
U.S. Attorney watchers say that if Pak had been defrauding the District governmentinstead of creating headlines in a racially charged incidenthe might never have seen the inside of a courtroom.
The criticism that the city’s lead law enforcement agency fails or refuses to prosecute many District crimes is a longstanding charge leveled at the busiest U.S. Attorney’s office in the land. Lewis’ predecessor, Eric “Place” Holder, enjoyed widespread popularity as the first African-American District resident to hold that job. But even Holder, now Deputy U.S. Attorney General, couldn’t escape criticism that he looked the other way on public corruption within the District government.
Last week’s conviction of a former supervisor at the city’s Water and Sewer Authority on bribery charges stemming from the use of city equipment and employees to run his own plumbing business came only after the Washington Post last December disclosed that the U.S. Attorney’s office had failed to pursue these allegations.
At-Large Councilmember David Catania, who is pushing legislation to create a locally elected Attorney General’s office to prosecute District crimes, has renewed his criticism of the U.S. Attorney’s office for its failure to prosecute Medicaid fraud in the District. Earlier this year, the council passed procurement reforms that enable the U.S. Attorney’s office to pursue contractors for billing the D.C. government for false expenses.
The first case brought under that act was an Oct. 19 indictment of Maryland health-care provider Denise Braxtonbrown-Smith and three of her companies for filing more than 30,000 false claimstotaling more than $10 millionwith the District government. The case was brought by the D.C. Corporation Counsel’s office, not the U.S. Attorney. Catania claims the case should have been filed by Lewis, who has more resources to prosecute complicated fraud schemes.
“You can steal millions of dollars from the District government in terms of Medicaid fraud, and the U.S. Attorney’s office equivocates as to whether it will prosecute,” the councilmember contends.
“I feel, frankly, that if we ever got into reviewing the appropriateness of contracts in the city, we could keep a whole corral of lawyers busy for a long time,” he adds.
After LL relayed these criticisms to Channing Phillips, spokesman for Lewis, our fax machine was clogged with press releases touting recent victories by Lewis & Co. Some actually involved District residents and businesses, like the April sentencing of a Georgia man for Medicare fraud involving three D.C. nursing homes, the October guilty plea by a former D.C. employee for Social Security fraud, and the recent conviction of five D.C. cab company owners for bribing District taxicab inspectors.
Since the beginning of the year, the U.S. Attorney’s office has obtained guilty pleas or convictions for public corruption of the director of the city’s largest homeless shelter, former Ward 1 advisory neighborhood commissioner Mary Treadwell, the city’s former taxicab commissioner, and the longtime former head of the public library system. That record, Phillips contends, refutes criticism that the office ignores municipal wrongdoing.
“We consider each and every case that comes in,” claims Phillips. “There is no policy per se that a certain type of crime will not be prosecuted.”
Perhaps there’s no policy, but there is a pattern of prosecutorial lassitude in a few areas.
•The Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, a national organization, estimates that in 1995 all types of insurance fraud in the District, totaling nearly $25 million, cost each D.C. family $1,539 in higher premiums. Insurance firms claim they have to hike their rates in D.C. because most fraud claims go unprosecuted.
•Business owners contendand police officers confirmthat the U.S. Attorney’s office refuses to prosecute bad-check artists unless the amount of the bounced check exceeds $2,000. Officers in the city’s bad-check unit say they don’t even present most bounced-check cases to the U.S. Attorney for prosecution because they know the cases will go nowhere. A recent case turned down by the police department involved a woman who had written 40 checks on a closed Chevy Chase Bank account. Most of the bad checks, totaling nearly $10,000, had been written to creditors in Maryland and Virginia, but the woman had a prior conviction in the District for passing bad checks.
•Both sides of the debate over D.C. police brutality implicate the U.S. Attorney’s office as a co-conspirator. Civil libertarians claim the office’s refusal to prosecute overzealous cops accounts for the department’s No. 1 national ranking in the use of deadly force, according to a recent series in the Washington Post. Police officers, on the other hand, claim that prosecutors’ indifference to assaults against them forces them to act as judge, jury, and executioner. “It’s almost implied they’re not going to prosecute, so the officers get the message they need to take care of it,” says former D.C. homicide detective William “Lou” Hennessy.
•While the U.S. Attorney pays heed to the more violent and headline-grabbing crimes, District residents complain that the office ignores crimes that affect the quality of life in the city, like burglaries, auto thefts, and auto break-ins. In the rare instances when an arrest is made in an auto burglary, the case often gets thrown out of court because the overworked prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s office show up unprepared. In a boilerplate defense, Phillips says many of these cases get a bye because of lack of evidence and credible witnesses.
“The federal system is just not set up to deal with urban crime,” says attorney Don Dinan, general counsel to the Democratic State Committee. “It doesn’t deal with it anywhere else in the country but here, and they’re not going to change the whole system just for us.”
LL predicts that change will indeed comeonce the city’s car-break-in epidemic hits Capitol Hill lawmakers.
CONRAD SENT THEM
Just say, “Conrad sent me.”
That was the code phrase being tossed around Election Night at the campaign headquarters of at-large D.C. Council candidate Beverly Wilbourn when scores of strangers showed up and demanded to get paid for supposedly having manned the polls that day. The phantom workers claimed they had been hired by veteran campaign strategist Conrad Smith, whom Wilbourn had enlisted to direct her field operations in the final days of her losing campaign.
Smith was nowhere to be found Election Night, and the number of people demanding to be paid was twice the 60 poll workers signed on by the campaign that morning.
“We know that a fair number of folks had gotten the word: You come in and you say, ‘Conrad sent me,’” says Shirley Lanier, sister of the candidate, who directed much of the campaign. “The stories had a sameness to them.”
“It became very difficult to work through,” Lanier adds.
Lanier at first tried to pay only the people who had been observed working at voting precincts during the day. But she had to abandon that strategy when the questionable workers became unruly. In the end, the campaign shelled out several thousand dollars to people who might not have lifted a finger to aid the first-time council candidate.
“They paid at least 30 to 50 people they had never seen or heard of just so there wouldn’t be a riot on Election Night,” notes a campaign adviser. “People were just hustling.”
Lanier says she still hasn’t spoken to Smith, a key player in Carol Schwartz’s first council victory in 1984 and architect of Valencia Mohammed’s D.C. school board victory in 1992.
“He ended up causing some of this last-day confusion,” Lanier laments.
Smith, however, says everyone he referred for payment worked for the candidate. “I tried to put in place a system that would preclude [fraud], but they wouldn’t listen to me at all,” he says.
Wilbourn’s candidacy was the creation of the Washington Post, which endorsed her but neglected to report on her campaign, and the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, which welcomed the long-shot contender’s pro-business stance. The Chamber considered the two eventual winners, Catania and Phil Mendelson, too anti-business because of their opposition to the new convention center at Mount Vernon Square.
The Post, for its part, considered Catania and Mendelson too white and too male. The newspaper used its endorsement of Wilbourn, an African-American lawyer, to deflect criticism from black readers that the Post promotes “the plan” to restore white majority rule in the District. Post editors did give white Republican Catania its second endorsement for an at-large council seat on the Nov. 3 ballot. Perhaps Catania got in under the Post’s gay quota.
The endorsements by the Chamber of Commerce and the Post created the illusion of momentum for Wilbourn, who finished fourth. Although the endorsements didn’t bring Wilbourn many votes, they brought in last-minute campaign donations, which attracted the scores of hustlers. At a time when District voters value management skills above all else, Wilbourn’s campaign follies explain why the Post and the Chamber couldn’t make her a contender.
The Nov. 26 Post editorial urging council Chair Linda Cropp to pick At-Large Councilmember Catania over veteran Schwartz to lead the Judiciary Committee has proven to be the kiss of death for Catania. Apparently, more senior members of the council decided that if the J Committee chairmanship warranted an editorial in the Post, it was worth fighting for after all. Following that editorial, which knocked Schwartz’s ability to handle the committee post, At-Large Democratic Councilmember Harold Brazil underwent a sudden change of heart and decided to take the reins of the committee, after all.
Since Brazil has more seniority than the other contenders, the Judiciary Committee chairmanship is his for the taking.
Brazil had initially indicated that he wanted to stick with his current assignment as chairman of the Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee, and just what caused him to change his mind last week is uncertain. LL, however, has a guess: envy and pettiness.
Brazil has openly scorned Catania since the two sparred during a council meeting last December, when Catania questioned the motives behind Brazil’s flip-flopping decision to support the controversial Children’s Island development. At the time, Brazil was trying to recruit David Wilmot, a lobbyist for the project, to raise money for his upcoming mayoral bid. And the dynamic duo nearly came to blows in April during a council hearing on the project.
Blocking Catania’s rise on the council, though, may not have been the sole motivation behind Brazil’s move to judiciary. D.C. Democratic leaders who shuddered at the prospect of allowing the panel’s only two RepublicansCatania and Schwartzto battle for leadership of the prized committee may have persuaded the councilmember to rearrange his priorities.
Brazil’s latest move opens up the chairmanship of the Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee, which Schwartz is expected to fill. Catania can then move into the chairmanship of the Local, Regional, and Federal Affairs Committee, which is currently headed by Schwartz.
Councilmembers-Elect Mendelson, at large, Jim Graham, Ward 1, and Vincent Orange, Ward 5, have lobbied Cropp to expand the current lineup of council committees to 13 so that each of them can step into a committee chairmanship when they take office next month. Barring that expansion, Mendelson, Graham, and Orange want Cropp to shrink the list of committees by one so that only veteran councilmembers get chairmanships. That move would deny a chairmanship to Catania, who has been on the council for only one year.
Never one to rock the boat, Cropp seems inclined to stick with the current lineup.CP
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