When Marion Barry’s 1994 election committee ran into trouble, charged with possible violations of the city’s campaign finance and conflict-of-interest laws, Barry asked two longtime friends to protect his newly redeemed image and help avert significant sanctions. Calling David Winston Wilmot and Frederick Douglas Cooke Jr. to the rescue was not surprising.
Wilmot, an enigma whose paradoxes far outnumber Barry’s, has known the mayor since his days as a rabble-rouser and consummate outsider. The men play tennis together; Wilmot has swapped birthday gifts with Barry’s former wife, Effi. And in 1990, when others thought Barry too drug-crazed to run for re-election, the loyal Wilmot stood at his side.
Cooke, corporation counsel for the Barry administration from 1987 through 1989, is a versatile lawyer with an intricate understanding of how the District government works and a reputation for playing strictly by the book.
This dynamic duo deftly manipulated things for their friend the mayor. They defied the Office of Campaign Finance’s (OCF) order to appear at a public hearing last November, arming themselves with an obscure city law that prohibits District government funds from being used to pay acting appointees who occupy their post for more than 90 days. Victor Sterling, then acting OCF director, fit the bill. In fact, if the law had been followed by then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, Sterling should have hit the unemployment lines in July. Wilmot and Cooke had Sterling, a former federal elections official, by the short hairs.
They met privately with Sterling and OCF’s legal staff to work out some arrangement aimed at circumventing public disclosure. Using the leverage provided by Sterling’s peculiar employment status, they pushed to have the conciliation agreement sanitized, removing all specific information about the violations and keeping the agreement sealed.
“I knew if it went to court, they would win,” Sterling told a D.C. Council committee about his motivation for not only sealing the agreement but allowing Barry’s election committee to neither confirm nor deny its infraction of District election laws.
Because of Cooke and Wilmot’s tactical maneuver, Barry’s campaign organization skirted stiffer penalties, including possible criminal prosecution. Instead, the committee paid only $1,600 in fines. Public outcry since then has included activist Dorothy Brizill’s request for a review of the case by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, which scheduled a hearing for March 17. Interestingly, in arguing for dismissal, Cooke now says that “the then acting director of OCF was wholly within the exercise of his discretion to enter into a conciliation agreement with the committee.”
“They like to intimidate,” says Brizill. “When I heard they were the mayor’s lawyers, I knew I had to be prepared for anything.”
Sterling and Brizill’s assumptions are valid. Cooke and Wilmot have reputations as magicians, and their fingerprints are on nearly every major political issue in the city during the past 10 years. As representatives for the wine and beer industries, Wilmot and Cooke led the opposition against the bottle bill, which would have required the beverage industry to provide a 5-cent refund on bottles and cans. Initiative 28, which was defeated in 1987, also would have prohibited the sale of any beverage can with a detachable pull tab.
According to Ward 1 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Lawrence Guyot, Wilmot was a conduit for funds to pay campaign workers who helped defeat Initiative 28.
“He was the clear link between money folks and the people I wanted to make sure got some of that money,” says Guyot. “He got 80 people in Ward 1 money.”
Usually, Wilmot and Cooke’s influence is more subtle. Cooke helped a group of local government officials, including Barry, wage a successful 1992 campaign against a term limits proposal, preventing it from reaching the ballot stage (though last year a similar measure came before the voters and received overwhelming approval). Wilmot, representing the Hotel Association of Washington, lobbied against and helped kill a 1993 proposal by the Kelly administration to levy a surcharge on the city’s hotels. The opposition to a proposal by Kelly that same year for a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes on universities was also aided by Wilmot, who was looking out for his client and former employer, Georgetown University.
When District doctors suggested a ceiling on malpractice awards as one way to halt escalating medical expenses, Wilmot and Cooke helped lead the fight against the tort reform effort, which would have cut into lawyers’ fees. They helped sentence the proposal to a sort of legislative purgatory. The two men teamed up again last summer on behalf of client Fannie Mae (the Federal National Mortgage Association), beating back the city’s first-round effort to extract corporate income taxes from the mortgage giant. Both Wilmot and Cooke are on $3,000 monthly retainers for Fannie Mae; Cooke’s wife, Anita Grant, works there.
When hotel and restaurant owners grew impatient with the District government’s inaction on a new convention center, Cooke and Wilmot helped usher into existence an advisory board to conduct the necessary studies for the project and push legislation through council. The advisory board is now poised to become the convention center authority, with the ability to sell government revenue bonds and collect from a dedicated tax. For a while, Wilmot and Cooke even found themselves working opposite ends of the arena proposal—Wilmot advising Black Entertainment Television President and CEO Robert L. Johnson on his attempts to finance the project, and Cooke offering advice to the Kelly administration about dealing with Johnson and sports czar Abe Pollin, according to a high-level Barry administration official.
Cooke, representing a well-financed citizens’ group, the D.C. Committee for Riverboat Gambling, last year managed to defeat court challenges to getting a gambling initiative on the ballot. (The proposal fell apart when its proponents failed to collect the required number of petition signatures).
“David and Fred are longtime residents and participants in D.C. government,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. “They have a high-profile client base and they are close advisers to the mayor. That makes them, in my view, power brokers.”
Beneath their suave, somewhat aloof demeanor, Cooke and Wilmot are unabashed hired guns. They accumulate political and social contacts with an eye toward their future use. Their political agendas appear to be driven more by their wallets than any ideological underpinning.
The men are familiar figures at the John A. Wilson Building, huddled together in the back of the council chambers, whispering to each other, or working the fifth-floor corridor, lobbying persons about to speak before the council. More often than not, one or both are at press conferences called by the mayor. When Kelly staged her public goodbye event in the community room of 1 Judiciary Square, Wilmot and Cooke were there. Earlier this year, when Barry held a press conference to announce his strategy for cutting a projected $722-million deficit, Wilmot stood along a side wall, conspicuously trying to be inconspicuous.
“I don’t think the general public realizes how much influence these guys have,” says Terry Lynch, director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. “They’re part of a small company of local lobbyists who really run the show; they can get things on and off the legislative calendar; they can get the mayor to make proposals.”
“They can get anything they want,” he adds.
Cooke and Wilmot are lobbyists; they try to influence legislation and the actions of public or elected officials. Depending on your view of how government should operate, the two men are either saints or sinners.
“I respect how effective they are,” says Lynch. “They can get a job done, no doubt about it. But that doesn’t make what they do right.”
At-Large Councilmember William Lightfoot chooses to call the two men “facilitators.”
“They have access, which could mean they have power,” says Lightfoot. “But they put people together. They don’t come in advocating a position when they bring a client in. They’ll say, “Hey Bill, this is so-and-so, why don’t you have breakfast together?’ And if there is a follow-up, they’ll do the follow-up for their client.”
“You would be amazed how much you can learn,” says Evans. “I can have Wilmot come in representing one of his clients, like Fannie Mae, and have someone from the other side, and within one hour I can be very educated.”
Wilmot gets paid very well for educating councilmembers and his good friend Marion Barry. Last year, he received more than $236,000 from his lobbying activities alone. According to OCF records, his client list includes MCI Telecommunications, Anheuser-Busch, Island Development Corp., the Hotel Association of Washington, and retirement fund TIAA/CREF.
Cooke maintains that he acts as a lawyer rather than a lobbyist for his clients, with the exception of Fannie Mae.
Unraveling the layers of Cooke and Wilmot’s influence is like traversing a Gabriel García Márquez novel, winding through a labyrinth of private meetings, weekend grocery shopping trips, a network of tight-lipped friends, and characters fearful that doors will slam if they say the wrong thing.
Cooke initially consented to be interviewed for this article. After rescheduling the date, he canceled altogether, explaining, “The problem is this: David doesn’t want to do the interview a whole lot, and I don’t think I should do the interview if David won’t do it.”
Wilmot, a raconteur of sorts, was effusive in a casual conversation one day, telling stories about his youth, spouting his grandfather’s homilies, and recounting his daughter’s handling of her first encounter with racism. But he would not agree to a formal interview, and failed to return subsequent telephone calls. Finally, as this story was going to bed, he called principally to clarify an item on his résumé.
Even Georgetown University Law Center, where Wilmot spent nearly 20 years as dean of admissions, flatly denied Washington City Paper access to its yearbooks and library. Spokesman Edwin Darden says there are no student yearbooks that could provide information on how Wilmot performed while a student, nor any records documenting what he did as dean of admissions. Only an attorney willing to pay a $500 fee can get into the Law Center’s library, according to Darden.
Many persons interviewed for this article, including some D.C. councilmembers, requested anonymity, citing Cooke and Wilmot’s unyielding power.
The nuances of power often are subtle: a well-timed handshake, a choreographed whisper in the right ear, strategic attendance at an event. Wilmot elevates these nuances to a fine art. Last month, when Barry arrived at the Capitol—the urgency of his stride telegraphing the importance of his testimony before two subcommittees of the Republican Congress, begging it to bail the District out of its $722-million red-ink sinkhole—he was flanked by a team of men whose veneer was as serious as his own: his chief of staff, the city administrator, finance experts, and David W. Wilmot. The presence of the lawyer-cum-lobbyist was noteworthy: “He’s the major connection between [Delegate Eleanor Holmes] Norton and the mayor,” commented one Barry aide.
That’s one interpretation. Wilmot, after all, was campaign co-manager and one of the chief fund-raisers for Norton’s successful 1990 congressional race. And he helped her overcome the delinquent tax problems that plagued her during that campaign. But few things are ever one-dimensional where the dapper 50-year-old is concerned. He is a master at proper placement, and every placement has its purpose.
In the case of Congress, Wilmot is also lobbying to change the name of the board expected to take control of the city’s finances. He has been talking privately, in a voluntary capacity, to committee staffers about convincing their bosses to change the name from financial control board to financial recovery and stabilization board. What’s in a name? A whole lot. The name change softens impressions that Barry and other officials are no longer in charge of the city’s money and agencies. And there may be more to Wilmot’s moves than that.
These days, Wilmot also carries Merrill Lynch & Co.’s water. According to a report filed with the OCF, Wilmot received $28,375.75 in the last half of 1994 from the giant investment firm, which until 1993 captured a sizable portion of the city’s bond business and was no slouch when it came to making campaign contributions.
Merrill Lynch ran into trouble two years ago when an undisclosed agreement it had with Lazard Freres, the city’s financial adviser, came to light. The agreement called for Lazard Freres to help market “swap transactions,” which involve trading a fixed interest rate for a variable rate. In exchange, Lazard Freres received a consultant fee and, according to the Washington Post, in some cases split additional fees generated by the deals. The District used Merrill Lynch for two swaps while the agreement was in place. The companies said fees from those deals were not split, and insisted there was nothing wrong with the agreement. But At-Large Councilmember John Ray called it a “clear conflict of interest.” According to the Washington Times, Lazard Freres was subsequently fired. Some District lawmakers wanted to bar Merrill Lynch from bidding on city bond business, but the company voluntarily stopped bidding.
Despite its current “junk” credit rating, the city will need to sell bonds again to refinance its debt, and build a new convention center and the proposed downtown arena. As a potential broker for new bond sales, Merrill Lynch has a powerful ally in Wilmot, especially if he can develop connections on the Hill as tight as those he enjoys at city hall, particularly with Barry.
Quite simply, Barry owes Wilmot. When the mayor was fresh from a six-month jail term on narcotics possession charges, his political comeback was almost cut off at the knees by an upstart opponent who challenged whether the old man could fulfill the residency requirement. After all, he had been living out of town in a jail cell.
The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics summoned Barry to appear with his challenger, JePhunneh Lawrence. But before he stood in front of the board of lawyers, whose questioning sometimes transforms the government office into a courtroom, Barry wanted his own legal representative. He called around the city to a couple of lawyers he thought might have good memories of their times together. But the door kept closing. Finally he called his good friend Wilmot, who was incredulous when Barry told him of his plight. “Send the papers to me,” Wilmot told the wanna-be Ward 8 councilmember.
The board ruled in Barry’s favor. He went on to upset incumbent Wilhelmina Rolark and later, using religious motifs and themes, redeemed his image in the 1994 mayoral election. Wilmot’s role in Barry’s comeback was not lost on political observers.
“I used to call him King David,” laughs Thomas Blanton, executive assistant to Lightfoot and a fellow graduate of Wilmot’s alma mater and former employer, Georgetown Law Center.
But, Blanton quickly adds, “You can’t have a private person affecting that many things and not watch what he’s doing. He should be watched.”
Timing. Wilmot understands its importance in the quest for prestige and power. It was a well-timed departure from the Caribbean island of St. Martin where he was born that began his upward mobility. His father died when he was 10 years old. Angry and confused, Wilmot says he rebelled, finding himself bordering on juvenile delinquency at 13 and developing a distinction as the island’s troublemaker. As he tells it, even when he wasn’t guilty he stood accused—like the time the police showed up at his mother’s door, charging him with some mischievous episode that occurred while he was at home suffering from jaundice.
When Wilmot was 18, a local judge gave him the choice of going to jail or joining the military; he chose the latter. He says the military provided him with needed discipline and the financial assistance to improve his education.
In the late ’60s, Wilmot landed at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock. While there is no indication that he met young William Jefferson Clinton, he still made the right connections at the right time: The father of his future wife, Mary Mercer, was well-connected in the local political and civil rights scene.
“I would see sitting around my wife’s father’s table men like Thurgood Marshall, and I said if they can do what they do and they’re black, I can do it too,” remembers Wilmot.
Wilmot’s résumé reports a tenure as “assistant city manager” of Little Rock from July 1969 through August 1970. However, a spokesperson for Little Rock’s personnel department says Wilmot was not the assistant city manager, but rather one of several assistants to the city manager. Wilmot says the spokesperson is wrong, that he was an administrative assistant promoted to assistant city manager.
After graduating in 1970 from the University of Arkansas, Wilmot headed for Washington, D.C., where he enrolled at Georgetown University Law Center. The nation’s capital in the ’70s was the right place and time for a young black man with good looks, a malleable intellect, and unquenchable ambition: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated two years earlier, and black America was still reeling from the death. Political leaders were pushing for greater equal rights including Affirmative Action and other quota-based remedies for a century of discrimination visited upon African-Americans. Residents in the District were fired up, denouncing the city’s plantation status and demanding to elect their own mayor and city council. Julius Hobson and others led the campaign for statehood, creating a party of the same name while eliciting the aid of influential liberal congressional representatives.
The era left its ceremonial scars on Wilmot, creating a paradoxical character who caters to money-hungry corporations but fights for minority representation on corporate and community boards of directors, mentor programs for young African-American children, and provides legal aid for the homeless.
Wilmot’s bio lists an impressive series of awards from Georgetown: the Student Bar Association’s Outstanding Service Award for 1971, the Washington Law Reporter Prize for 1973, and the Jeffrey Crandall Award in 1972 for Outstanding Service to the Legal Aid Society. Until the Law Center library is liberated, the veracity of these listings is impossible to confirm. But they certainly reflect his reputation.
“He was brilliant,” remembers one Georgetown Law Center graduate who requests anonymity. “There used to be a policy that a student could test out of a course; depending on how well the person did, he or she didn’t have to take the course. David tested out of so many courses they had to change the policy.”
The test story appears to bear the brand of magical realism for which Márquez, and now Wilmot, is famous. Spokesman Darden flatly denies that the Law Center ever had a policy permitting students to test out of a course, meaning Wilmot could not possibly have performed the feat for which he is praised. Still, the story has become legend, repeated like oral history and imbued with greater potency with each retelling.
But other legendary tales about Wilmot and his sidekicks apparently are true. In Dream City, which recounts the rise and fall of the first Barry administration, authors Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood call Wilmot the “consummate inside player” and frequent tennis partner of the mayor and his then political cronies, Elijah Rogers, John Clyburn, and Bob Washington. (Former Councilmember James Nathanson, shorter and older than Wilmot, still brags about beating the power broker at tennis—to which Wilmot replies, “In his dreams.”)
“Their tennis coach, John Mudd, was part of the pack until he was busted for distribution of cocaine,” write Jaffe and Sherwood. “They took on dog nicknames when [advertising executive Jeff] Mitchell showed up one day with a bag of trinkets, with different dog tags for each member of the pack. Rogers became “Baby Dog,’ and Wilmot and [David Rivers] were “Deputy Dogs.’ Barry was “Supreme Dog,’ shortened to Supreme.”
The relationship between Barry and Wilmot remains close—although it’s unclear if they still call each other dogs.
If Wilmot’s life could be sketched out, it would look like an architectural drawing, each line exact, measured, leading from one point to the next, without uncertainty and always finding its way to a larger destination—a room, a roof, the world. After graduating from Georgetown Law Center, he became its dean of admissions from 1973 through 1991. The move appears as deliberate as Wilmot’s choice to leave his little island. From that campus, where thousands of bright students compete each year for slightly more than 600 seats, Wilmot might not have ruled the world—but he could certainly develop access to those who someday would.
Students who received Wilmot’s letter of acceptance to one of the country’s most prestigious law schools often became his friends. Wilmot cultivated relationships, establishing an unofficial loan fund to assist students who needed money for books or rent. Some he even took out to dinner or invited to his home. He understood—perhaps even better than they—that they would become important figures, finding jobs in the White House, city governments, and court systems around the country. They were, in effect, an expanding network of access.
Merrick Malone, acting city administrator for economic development, and the District’s new city administrator, Michael Rogers, were admitted to Georgetown Law Center during Wilmot’s tenure. Years later, Wilmot served on the transition committee that recommended the two for their current cabinet-level posts.
“He admitted me to law school when I was at the [D.C.] Street Academy,” says R. David Hall, real esate developer and one-time president of the D.C. Board of Education. “I don’t forget somebody who helped me.”
“I can pick up the telephone and make a call, and get any information or a scoop about something I want,” brags Wilmot. “In my business, information is critical.”
Veteran D.C. public relations executive Arthur Schultz, who knows a thing or two about power-brokering himself, agrees. “In a place like the District of Columbia, power comes from information, not money,” he says.
If Wilmot was busy collecting chits at Georgetown, he was at the same time a strong advocate for minority rights. “He did an outstanding job of increasing African-American minority representation at Georgetown,” says George Brown, a lawyer with Davis Wright Tremaine and former assistant city administrator for economic development under the Kelly administration. “I can’t remember a time when I sent someone to him and he didn’t help them.” Wilmot stillevinces such concerns. “I got a call one day from someone who told me, “David, I’m overseeing a $13-billion budget,’ ” he says. “I said, “Don’t talk to me about money, tell me what you’re doing for black people.’ ”
The enigmatic image of Wilmot is heightened by his personal life: At 45 he adopted a boarder baby whose drug-addicted mother died in a crack house with the infant nearby, say sources close to Wilmot. He named the child David Jr. and today the child, 5, monopolizes his dad’s weekends. Wilmot dotes on his two grown daughters and advises them to follow his grandfather’s homilies, in particular the three P’s—preparation, perseverance, and patience—and the four C’s—commitment, conviction, courage, and confidence. Recently one daughter, a medical student at Georgetown, ran smack into her first racist encounter. She high-tailed it back to her father for a little advice. “I told her she hadn’t shown courage and she better go back,” Wilmot says, adding that she was pleasantly surprised by the results.
The man representing Fannie Mae in its fight against the city, clergy, and some nonprofit organizations over its $300-million income tax exemption serves on the board of several charitable organizations, including the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, where his name elicits the kind of worship usually reserved for royalty. “David’s terrific,” says Patricia Mullahy Fugere, executive director of the clinic. “He brings a very good perspective and introspective view of District politics. He helps with fund-raising, and he has shared with us insights about the players and made introductions for us.”
Wilmot sports the trappings of wealth—a Mercedes, stylish suits, and a Gold Coast home among Washington’s black elite. He is a member of Leadership Washington, a prestigious private group that costs $2,500 to join, and whose applicants can be turned away for not being important enough. The group’s members include directors of some of the city’s primary government agencies and corporations, media personalities, and politicians.
“I worked real hard for this stuff,” Wilmot says of his material wealth. “But I’m not afraid to lose most things, because I started with nothing.”
As for his image: “I know some people think I’m slick, but those are the people who have never spent any time with me. I often invite people to spend some time with me, and they will see the rumors are myths.” (This after denying repeated requests for an interview.)
Linda Greenan, a one-time operative in District politics and now a special assistant to Georgetown University’s president, says the man she’s known as a friend for three years is very different from outsiders’ perceptions of him. “He’s built up trust and loyalty with a lot of people; I think that’s his trademark,” says Greenan. “When you peel things away, he really does have integrity.”
Whatever one’s perception of Wilmot, there is no question about his abilities. “He is a master at taking his client’s message to the right people,” says Schultz, who attributes the impressive reach of both Wilmot and Cooke to a deceptively simple skill: “They have the ability to move so easily among a lot of disparate groups.”
Frederick D. Cooke Jr. may be the more ambidextrous of the two power brokers. After nearly three years as Barry’s corporation counsel, he moved into private practice and became a behind-the-scenes adviser to Kelly, serving on a team of strategists planning for a new convention center. He also provided legal assistance to the political action committee formed to support Kelly’s re-election. Today, it’s back to the future as he provides quiet support for the Barry administration.
“Whatever administration comes into place, he can survive,” notes Brizill.
Cooke is regarded as the junior of the pair, less Machiavellian than Wilmot but a better glad-hander. He is the duo’s conscience, strait-laced and uncomfortable in gray areas. For some, Cooke is Hyde to Wilmot’s Jekyll.
“Fred tends to be more conservative than me,” says Wilmot. “But that’s good. It’s a great balance. He’s got a sense of history. He’s somebody I can lean on. I find comfort in his advice; I think the feeling is mutual.
“We share more things in common than most people realize,” adds Wilmot.
Sometimes, however, it’s hard to distinguish who is playing what role. Take the time in 1991 when Wilmot, involved in sensitive settlement negotiations with Georgetown over his imminent departure, called his good-natured, mild-mannered buddy to slay the enemy—or at least bring it to its knees. An adversarial relationship had developed between Wilmot and the new dean of the Law Center, Judith Areen, who wanted him gone. But Wilmot was not leaving without a doggie bag; he’d provided services beyond those of an admissions dean, including lobbying the District government for $700 million in revenue bonds that the school used for a building program. In negotiations, Cooke won for Wilmot tuition benefits for his two daughters; two years of medical benefits for his family; and the nebulous title of “counsel” to the president of the university.
In documents filed with the OCF, Wilmot claims for fiscal 1994 to have worked for Georgetown as a lobbyist, billing the university $250 per hour. The documents fail to specify what, if anything, Wilmot did on the university’s behalf, nor is there an accounting of hours and fees. He says it’s because the university didn’t call him to do any work last year.
Aside from money and power, the odd couple also share grocery shopping. The two have been known to discuss client strategies in the aisles of the Silver Spring Giant supermarket, where they, and not their wives, do weekend grocery-shopping duties.
But while there are similarities between the two men—ambition, an obsession with secrecy (they would call it privacy), a good sense of humor, and unprintable responses from critics—many of the comments about the man who is regarded as Wilmot’s king-in-waiting tend to be favorable, even skirting the edge of mushy.
Marie Drissel, normally the caustic civic activist short on praise, decorates Cooke with descriptions like “diplomatic, rational, honest.”
“I tried to get him to run for mayor,” she adds.
A public role seems unlikely for Cooke, who relishes the ability to stay out of the spotlight, moving unseen and unnoticed. Unlike his flashier compatriot, Cooke would never stroll into a public hearing alongside the mayor. He would be there already, strategically positioned in a corner from which he could observe all of the players, making mental notes on who to call afterward.
“He has one of the best Rolodexes in town,” says John White, a former press secretary to Barry. “If there is something I want to know or someone I want to contact, he is one of the first people I call.”
Washington is the genesis of Cooke’s power-broker career. A rare find in a city where 65 percent of the government work force lives in the suburbs and more than 50 percent of residents are originally from another state, Cooke is a native Washingtonian. He brings to any client an institutional memory, contacts, understanding of the political terrain, skill for sidestepping land mines—and an unparalleled knowledge of where bodies are buried and who buried them. His library of personal knowledge is one most corporations and those desirous of power would die for, or at the very least pay big money.
A product of working-class parents from North Carolina, Cooke grew up in the Northwest neighborhood known as Petworth, attended public schools, and later went to Howard University, where he received his undergraduate degree in psychology. Although he may have been less fixated on placement than Wilmot, Cooke certainly served himself well by attending Howard, which had a well-deserved reputation—thanks to Charles Houston and others—as the legal vanguard of the civil rights movement. True to his penchant for understatement, Cooke’s résumé, unlike that of his exhibitionist associate, does not flaunt a list of awards. He did, however, graduate cum laude from the Howard University School of Law in 1972—a year before Wilmot.
While the mood of the period apparently vested political fervor and nationalist rhetoric in Wilmot, it seems hardly to have touched Cooke, who sometimes appears out of step with his fortysomething generation. Indeed, it may be his genial, fatherly demeanor that attracts clients.
“He reminds you of [the TV character] Ben Matlock; he dresses a little bit better than Ben,” says former Assistant City Administrator Brown about the 47-year-old whose off-the-rack suits contrast starkly with the material man’s expensive wardrobe.
“His approach is to disarm people and make them feel comfortable. He’s genuinely a nice guy,” continues Brown. “But that doesn’t mean when it’s time that Fred won’t move in for the kill.”
While Wilmot had Georgetown, Cooke followed a more traditional legal career path, clerking for Associate D.C. Superior Court Judge George W.Draper and serving as a judge advocate in the Air Force before landing with the law firm of Dow, Lohnes & Albertson in 1977. Ten years later, then-Corporation Counsel Herbert Reid, a law school professor and mentor of Cooke’s, left his position to become Barry’s chief of staff. Cooke was named corporation counsel, assuming responsibility for all of the law business of the District government. He supervised a staff of 186 lawyers and a support staff of 125, according to his biographical sketch.
Cooke’s tenure from 1987 through 1989 as chief legal eagle proved to be a difficult one politically and financially. Years of bureaucratic neglect and incompetence were coming to fruition in court, where Cooke’s staff was unable to stave off repeated findings against the city for failing to comply with court orders to improve correctional facilities, juvenile detention centers, and the mental health department.
Perhaps the most notable instance where the District was clobbered in court involved its homeless services. Lawyers for homeless advocates argued that the citizen-approved Initiative 17 required the District to provide not only shelters, but such amenities as toothbrushes, sanitary napkins, a specific number of clean towels, soap, and a host of other products. The District lost, then failed to honor the resulting court order, triggering a set of daily fines imposed by D.C. Superior Court. Homeless advocates eventually racked up enough money from the fines to finance their own development corporation.
Frustrated by the city’s win-loss record, a group of residents led by Brizill and her husband, Gary Imhoff, organized to have Initiative 17 overturned. The measure (Referendum 005) won overwhelming approval, providing the city with badly needed legal relief. That and subsequent clashes left Brizill with little regard for Cooke’s legal prowess.
“If I were in central lockup and had a quarter and Fred Cooke was the only name I had, I’d throw myself on the mercy of the court,” she says.
But Claude Bailey, a Cooke protégé and current spokesman for the city’s Office of Corporation Counsel, praises Cooke’s legal skills. He argues that Cooke and his staff can’t be blamed for the lawsuits and subsequent fines that are sinking the District into a financial morass.
“Most of the major cases involved how the government is operated, not legal problems,” says Bailey. “Those cases are management problems. If management doesn’t fix them, there’s not much we can do.”
Fairly or not, the case most people remember from Cooke’s tenure was the one involving Carl Rowan Sr. One night in 1988, the stately newsman, who is a symbol of pride for many African-Americans, discovered a young white male intruder in his back yard. As Rowan told the story, he heard someone messing with his window, went to see what was going on, and saw a naked woman and a man in shorts. He grabbed his gun—the one his son loaned him—and told his wife to call the police while he went to investigate. Rowan said the man jumped from behind the bushes; he thought he was being attacked and fired the gun. Although private possession of a firearm is illegal in the District, the U.S. Attorney refused to prosecute the case. Cooke, however, quoting chapter and verse of the law, decided to charge Rowan and take him to court. (Charges against the male intruder, who insisted he and his girlfriend were simply taking a surreptitious midnight dip in Rowan’s pool, were dropped after he agreed to perform community service.)
Rowan’s misdemeanor trial ended in a hung jury; the city decided not to retry the case. Cooke was blasted in the media and by residents for even taking the case to trial.
Highly placed District government sources say Barry was never interested in pressing charges; Cooke was the one who pushed for the prosecution. The political repercussions from the trial, they say, created tension between Barry and Cooke that sent the corporation counsel looking for an emergency exit from government.
“The gun thing was one time the mayor got a bum rap,” says White, “though the negative fallout did spill over on Fred.” White believes that Cooke ultimately left the government because he wanted to devote more time to his wife and four daughters—ages 26, 16, 9, and 7.
If Cooke’s image suffered during his tenure as corporation counsel, it did not impair his transition to private practice. At the very least, Cooke had a knowledge of the city and access to Barry and other key officials that were worth paying for. “He worked the position,” says former D.C. Auditor Otis Troupe. “He made a lot of friends and did a lot of favors.”
Moreover, Cooke was no longer saddled with defending an uncontrollable bureaucracy; he could pick and choose his clients and cases, playing on his strengths and contacts. “When he went into business, the community saw another side they did not see when he was corporation counsel,” says Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO.
A partial review of his clients lends credibility to that perception. Mary Eva Candon, former chairman of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, called on Cooke when she was charged with violating the Hatch Act. Merrick Malone, currently accused of muscling city contractors into making contributions to the Kelly campaign, has retained Cooke as his lawyer. When M.L. Carstaphen, former director of the city’s Housing Finance Agency, was accused of misappropriating hundreds of thousands of dollars in government funds, she called Cooke. When a business group wanted to form a political action committee to support Sharon Pratt Kelly’s re-election, the phone rang at Rubin, Winston, Diercks, Harris & Cooke. And when questions arose about General Manager Ed Jones’ handling of renovation finances at WHMM-TV (Channel 32), Jones called Cooke, who sits on the station’s board.
Cooke remains as ambidextrous as ever. In 1989, as corporation counsel, he supervised the city’s case against D.C. Lottery official Ronald Cocome, who had been fired from his job for alleged violations of conflict of interest laws. (The case was eventually settled out of court.) Five years later, Cooke stood before a D.C. Superior Court judge fighting for Cocome and Conrad Smith’s effort to put a riverboat gambling initiative on the ballot.
Above all, Cooke is discreet. In Dream City, Sherwood and Jaffe recount a 1989 meeting Cooke and then-City Administrator Carol Thompson had with Delano Lewis, a longtime Barry friend and fund-raiser. Concerned with the mayor’s deteriorating state, Cooke and Thompson hoped Lewis could persuade Barry not to run again, and to seek treatment for his drug problems. Lewis, it turned out, had already urged Barry to get help—with no results. The pair left feeling the situation was hopeless. But Cooke, like Wilmot, remained loyal to Barry, never breathing a word about the mayor’s condition in spite of the problems it created for him and other city administrators.
Because Cooke now operates as both lawyer and lobbyist, it’s hard to know whose ball he is carrying on any given day. This cloak of secrecy makes him equally dangerous as Wilmot, and a highly sought-after legal adviser.
“You know when you have [Cooke and Wilmot] as agents, you have the best,” says Guyot, who chastises African-Americans critical of professionals who sell their skills and expertise to the highest bidder. “To black Washington and black Americans in general, there is a guilt in being associated with money and with power,” he notes.
Cooke protégé Bailey also defends his former boss and Wilmot’s quest for power and wealth. “Why shouldn’t they do it?” he asks.
Bailey’s question may be irrelevant. Every sign indicates that Cooke and Wilmot are becoming household names among corporations looking for quick, efficient deals. It doesn’t matter whether Barry is in power or the city’s finances are turned over to some congressionally mandated control board filled with technical experts in drab suits; Cooke and Wilmot speak their language.
Skillfully wielding power behind closed doors, or in the shadows of some restaurant, or even in the aisles of a supermarket, Cooke and Wilmot answer to the sound of money—and on a good day, the crying of some less-fortunate child. By and large, though, it’s the big boys who have their attention.
Fannie Mae, threatened last summer with the possible repeal of its income tax exemption, has certainly benefited by having Wilmot and Cooke on retainer. Although the council is now threatening to pass a resolution urging Congress to force the corporation to pay its fair share, the legislation has no teeth. And the power couple have moved on to Capitol Hill, where they are dancing with congressional representatives whose home districts rely quite heavily on the mortgage giant, not just for loans but for jobs.
For last summer’s work, Wilmot pulled in a $35,000 paycheck from Fannie Mae. Cooke received $27,000. Plenty of work remains to be done, but if their record at protecting Fannie Mae up to now is any indication, chances are good the hired guns will add another notch to their belt.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Bill Rice and Darrow Montgomery.