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As D.C.’s badly ruptured ship of state sinks into the churning financial sea, its dispirited crew seems preoccupied with pointing the finger of accusation. Not since the trial of Mafia kingpin John Gotti has such suspicion and distrust rippled through an organizational network. The rampant blame-shifting has instilled fear in many D.C. public servants, who worry that they’ll end up taking the fall for politicians and their well-connected friends.
Those public servants have reason to fret. The federal Securities and Exchange Commission is already investigating whether the District committed fraud to obtain a $250-million bailout loan from Wall Street in December. And another investigation may be on the way: House D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee Chair James Walsh (R-N.Y.) revealed during congressional hearings last week that he may ask the Justice Department to determine whether D.C. officials purposely overspent budget limits set by Congress—and thus violated a federal law.
The high muck-a-mucks might need all the fall guys they can get.
But LL believes the public servants can rest easy. When federal investigators finally get to the bottom of the D.C. mess, they are likely to find the misconduct so widespread that they’d have to indict an entire government to bring all the responsible parties to justice. The old safety-in-numbers dodge may protect the guilty.
But with fears mounting, local leaders have done little but accuse each other of fiscal irresponsibility. In fact, were D.C. residents to judge only by the actions of their elected leaders, they’d never know there was a crisis. (LL makes only two exceptions to this rule: D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who earlier this month unveiled the control-board proposal, and frazzled D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke, who appears ready to come apart at the seams at any moment. Just by looking at the stressed-out Clarke, constituents can guess that something’s wrong.)
But when citizens of this city look into the faces of members of Congress—or into the District’s polluted alleys, or dirty streets, or closed medical clinics, or the dilapidated schools where children no longer have drinking water—they can be sure that something is wrong. Very wrong.
Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. has seized every opportunity to blame the crisis on former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. Kelly spoke out for the first time this week since leaving office; she blamed Congress, as she did constantly during the last two years of her term, for not giving the city enough money to survive. In 1990, Kelly campaigned promising to “clean house,” and reform city government. Now she seems to be saying that she couldn’t dust and vacuum because the house’s foundation was weak.
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Besides blaming Kelly, Barry also cites the “eagerness for freedom” that made District leaders accept a flawed system of self-govern ance like a thirsty man gulping stagnant water. Barry now says he didn’t realize in 1973 that home rule had saddled the District with a large debt and ever-dwindling resources. Last Sunday, he told the congregation at Goodwill Baptist Church, at 1862 Kalorama Rd. NW, that he realized these problems in 1979, during his first year as mayor. But he only began to speak about them in 1995, during his first year as caretaker mayor.
The D.C. Council blames Barry for not moving quickly enough to rein in spending. Both the council and Congress have demanded that Barry cut more than 750 District employees. If Congress eventually forces deeper cuts, Hizzoner will likely blame the council for not forming a united front with him.
Congressman Julian Dixon (D-Calif.), one of the District’s steadiest allies on Capitol Hill, last week vehemently blamed the city’s auditors, castigating Coopers & Lybrand for not warning Congress long ago that D.C. was going down the tubes. Dixon’s outrage at the auditors and his blasts at Clarke and Barry had a Shakespearean touch of protesting too much. Before Republicans seized control of the House in November, Dixon had been chairman of the House D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee and a leader of the Democratic gang that District officials relied on to sweep their problems under the rug. But if the auditors withheld information from Congress, Dixon asked during last week’s hearings, how was he to know that the city was doing such things as hiding D.C. General Hospital’s $85-million deficit?
By reading the newspapers, that’s how. Little of this latest barrage of bad news should surprise observant D.C. watchers.
The auditors hide behind their client-confidentiality agreement with the city, saying that Congress should have read between the audit reports’ lines. Coopers & Lybrand apparently didn’t realize that it needed to stamp “D.C. Budget Out of Balance” on the cover of its report to get Congress’ attention. Congress, after all, has grown accustomed to the user-friendly General Accounting Office, which puts the conclusions of its fat reports right in front, where congressional staff members couldn’t miss them.
But LL can also understand Dixon’s incredulity upon seeing Coopers & Lybrand partner Carolyn Smith milling behind Barry during last week’s hearing. Smith is now acting as an unpaid adviser to Barry. Four years ago, she testified before the city council in favor of the confirmation of Sharon Morrow to head the city’s crucial Department of Finance and Revenue, which collects taxes and oversees spending. Morrow turned out to be one of Kelly’s worst appointments, and left the department a shambles. After Morrow’s confirmation, Coopers & Lybrand was awarded city contracts that totaled at least $14 million over three years.
D.C. governmental affairs often carry the stench of such coziness.
Now Hizzoner has been handed another opportunity to blame his predecessor. Congressman Walsh wrote Barry Jan. 24, asking for any evidence that Kelly administration officials violated federal law prohibiting the District from spending more than Congress authorized in approving the city’s annual budget. Walsh intends to take such evidence to the Justice Department.
Barry, so far, has passed up this chance to take another shot at Kelly. But will he continue to do so? Or is he just holding his card for the right time to play it?
BARRY AT THE BRINK
Barry returned dramatically to Capitol Hill last week to testify before two House subcommittees overseeing District affairs. But if his Feb. 22 performance had been a Broadway show, critical reviews would have forced it to close after opening night.
This was Barry’s first appearance before Congress since his January 1990 drug arrest, and his chance to prove to his harshest critics that he is a reformed leader who has the situation well in hand. Nothing less than home rule was at stake.
But instead of saying what Congress wanted to hear, Barry attempted to live up to his reputation as a financial wizard by inundating House members with confusingcharts and statistics. His message was that home rule gave the District too many responsibilities and not enough resources. So, he argued, Congress should take back the parts of the D.C. government he offers and give him more money to run what’s left.
This was not what Congress wanted to hear. By all accounts, Barry blew his opportunity to impress Capitol Hill.
During the hearing, members of Congress warned Barry they are looking for significant layoffs of city employees and deeper cuts in spending. They also warned the mayor and D.C. officials that Congress will watch their behavior over the next few weeks to see whether they are worthy of representation on the financial control board that will run the District until the fiscal crisis eases. If Congress doesn’t like what it sees, then the city will end up with almost no say on the board.
Since Barry’s beating on Capitol Hill, he’s been defiant rather than behaving as Congress might hope. He has attempted to rally his political base, telling city employees who carried him back into office last fall that he will not bow to demands to cut their jobs. Two days after his congressional appearance, Barry addressed a meeting of mayoral employees and city council staffers. “I’ll resign before I’m taken over [by Congress],” he vowed. “There is not going to be a takeover.”
Last Sunday, he preached the same gospel at Goodwill Baptist Church, the home church of Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith. Barry invoked his street-fighting days, wrapping political control of the District in the civil rights mantle. He said any control board set up by Congress would have “to bring money to the table” because the federal government was more responsible than any other entity for the District’s current plight.
Councilmember Smith has also raised the specter that layoffs and deep cuts in social services might lead to civil unrest. “We already have witnessed demonstrators outside the Wilson Building making it impossible for people to come and go,” Smith wrote in a letter handed out during Sunday’s services. “There are rumors of possible riots, and there are many who simply say they are giving up on the city and plan to join others who have moved away.
“However, this true crisis must not provide an opportunity for others to further erode our basic right to elect our own leaders and govern ourselves.”
Barry and Smith know Congress doesn’t want to be stuck with the day-to-day operations of the city. And Barry, in particular, is gambling that he can resolve this mess on his own terms, rather than let Congress dictate its terms to him.
When the D.C. Council put together its plan to cut spending Dec. 21, it abolished salaries and compensation for all but six city boards and commissions. Among those now expected to volunteer their time are members of the city’s Board of Real Property Assessments and Review, who spend countless hours each spring hearing tax appeals by commercial landlords and homeowners. With this year’s tax appeal season about to open, the board is threatening to resign in protest over its new volunteer status.Many of the board’s 18 members are real-estate assessors and businesspeople who say they can’t afford to donate the three months needed to hear hundreds of tax appeals….
Most of Ward 8’s biggest political names made last week’s filing deadline to run for the council seat Barry vacated in January. The 22 contenders include Ab Jordan, Chuck Dixon, James Bunn, Don Folden, Sandy Allen, JePhunneh Lawrence, Mel Edwards, Rahim Jenkins, William Lockridge, Eydie Whittington, Cardell Shelton, and Malik Shabazz.
The race already proves that politics makes strange bedfellows. Allen has won an endorsement from Ward 8 school board member Linda Moody—even though Allen and her campaign manager, Bob Bethea, were part of Barry’s unsuccessful effort to unseat Moody last fall. Bethea and Allen are apparently now telling Moody supporters they didn’t really try that hard….
Terence Johnson numbered among the celebrities and unexplained guests who watched as Congress pummeled Barry. Johnson, you’ll remember, was recently released from Maryland prison after serving time for killing two Prince George’s County police officers. He was allowed into the hearing room through a side door controlled by committee members and their staff—special treatment that irritated those who stood in line for hours, hoping to snag a seat.