City Paper is not for tourists
D.C. Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown’s remarks at last week’s memorial service for Chuck Brown were unusually edgy for a funeral.
“I am go-go,” Brown said, as his speech moved from praising the go-go Godfather’s influence to confronting his own foes—real and imagined. “To the media: You better get that right,” he said. Then it was on to unnamed go-go-hating newcomers. “For all of the people who just moved to Washington, D.C., and have a problem with go-go music, get over it.” If those last three words sounded familiar, that’s because they were the ones Mayor-for-Life-turned-Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry directed at white voters unhappy with his post-prison return to office.
A few days later, after sitting for a Washington Post profile in which he described himself as entirely focused on his job, Brown shoved WTOP reporter Mark Segraves aside, rather than answer questions about a federal investigation into his personal and campaign finances. He winked at Segraves during a legislative session. Then he said he had “no plans” to resign.
It was a contradictory, and defiant, week for the city’s second-ranking elected official—and it turned out to be his last one on the job. On Wednesday, federal prosecutors unveiled a charge accusing Brown of felony bank fraud. For all the talk about focus, plea negotiations between Brown’s lawyer, Fred Cooke Jr., and the authorities had been going on for several days, according to people familiar with the situation. Brown had asked prosecutors if they would allow him to serve out the rest of his term, but they said no. All of a sudden, he did have plans to quit.
And yet, as predictable as the end-game may have been, the scene Wednesday outside the office Brown had decorated with his collection of Muhammad Ali pictures was chaotic, a scrum of reporters and TV cameras and other harbingers of political doom. Ahead of an afternoon meeting with D.C. Council colleagues, staffers locked the doors to Brown’s suite; when NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood sought to enter, a door got slammed on his foot. The door broke. Sherwood’s foot did not. Staffers called for security.
In his private meeting with colleagues, Brown apologized, but stressed that the misconduct he would plead guilty to had nothing to do with his official duties. He was less forthcoming with the media. “I’ll have a comment tomorrow,” he said as he left, surrounded by angry-looking staffers. “Thank you. No comment as of now.”
Wilson Building aides may want to bone up on logistics for similar future meetings. Another longstanding investigation, into Mayor Vince Gray’s 2010 election campaign, jumped into “holy shit” mode last month, with U.S. Attorney Ron Machen’s team getting guilty pleas from two former aides who had illegally funneled money to nuisance candidate Sulaimon Brown, then lied to cover up the payments. LL and the Post have each reported that Gray’s best friend and former campaign chairwoman, Lorraine Green, is the unnamed individual who prosecutors say in court papers also knew of the payments. That investigation, if anything, seems to be more far-reaching than the one into Kwame Brown; FBI agents raided the homes and offices of one of D.C.’s biggest campaign contributors, city contractor Jeff Thompson, in March.
The question about Gray—who issued a statement saying he was “shocked….disappointed and saddened” about Brown’s departure—complicates the game of prognostication that began when rumors of Brown’s resignation first surfaced. Under the District’s Home Rule Charter, councilmembers will pick one of their four at-large colleagues to serve as interim chairman pending an election (which will probably happen on Nov. 6 with the general election). Most amateur odds-makers give the edge to Phil Mendelson, who is generally liked, and who lacks the big-office ambitions that might discomfit colleagues. Nonetheless, Vincent Orange may also push for the job.
But the notion that other shoes may yet drop makes it a weightier decision: After all, if Machen’s crew takes on the current mayor—who, it must be noted, has denied any and all wrongdoing—the council boss could wind up as the city’s chief executive.
That’s the job, of course, that Brown once eyed. His political career started out looking like it had no limits (well, besides the natural limits that come from running for office in a town where you can’t move up to governor, a state legislature, or the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives). At age 33, he defeated Harold Brazil, a well-funded but highly vulnerable incumbent, in a 2004 at-large race. He soon developed a reputation as a good retail politician who made up for his lack of polish with a near-fanatical work ethic. “He believed that working 20 hours a day would make up for any deficit he had,” says one former aide.
Brown ran unopposed in 2008—an irony, since allegations over campaign fundraising irregularities during that race would end up triggering the federal investigation. Brown contemplated running for mayor in 2010, going so far as to produce a cartoon mock-up of a video aimed at introducing himself to voters who didn’t know who he was, according to a former campaign aide. Instead, he ran for chairman. As with his first two race, Brown’s father and brother were central players: Father Marshall Brown is a longtime campaign field organizer who is best known as one of Barry’s most loyal lieutenants; Che Brown runs a sales coaching business that bankruptcy records show has not been successful.
Until the 2010 campaign, Brown almost never had a bad news cycle. But things turned quickly. Before election day, news broke that Brown was being sued by several credit card companies for more than $50,000 in unpaid debt. Those lawsuits led to a further examination of Brown’s finances, which showed he’d buried himself in debt on purchases, including a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a boat dubbed “Bullet Proof.” (Which, court papers filed Wednesday allege, he financed through a fraudulent loan against his Hillcrest home, overstating by “tens of thousands of dollars” his income on his loan application.) Though almost all his council colleagues had endorsed him, a number went on background to tell LL or his editors that they thought the chairman-to-be was kind of dim.
None of that wound up mattering; Brown coasted to an easy win. But soon after he was sworn in, his troubles mounted. It seemed Brown had put the city on the hook for not one, but two, luxury Lincoln Navigators because, emails suggested, he wanted a vehicle comparable to the mayor’s. The public uproar over the $2,000-a-month price tag and the fact that Brown had rejected the first ride because of its interior color scheme was remorseless. Brown had to ditch the Navigator less than two months after taking office. Struggling to explain the mess, he alternated between taking “full responsibility” and blaming his staff. Months later, after he abruptly stripped Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells of a committee assignment, he struggled to come up with an explanation to demonstrate the move was anything other than retaliation for Wells’ criticism of the car deal.
By then, Brown had bigger worries: The Office of Campaign Finance had released an audit of Brown’s 2008 campaign that showed all sorts of irregularities. They include 210 unreported donations worth more than $100,000 and 53 unreported expenditures totaling $169,000. Most noteworthy was the fact that Brown’s brother, Che, received more than $240,000 from a third-party contractor. The campaign would pay the contractor, who would then turn around and pay Che’s company “in close proximity to the time frames if not the same day,” the audit said. Kwame and his family denied any wrongdoing, but when the Board of Elections and Ethics referred the case to the U.S. Attorney’s office last July, then-Chairman Togo West told reporters he thought there’d been “criminal” activity in the 2008 campaign. Prosecutors acknowledged after the BOEE’s referral that they had already been looking at Brown’s campaign.
(Worth noting: The Post raised similar questions about a third-party contractor being used to pay Che and Marshall Brown during the 2004 campaign.)
It turned out Brown had won few friends on the job. Former staffers complain of being completely shut out of Brown’s inner circle, which consisted of his dad and brother and other close friends, like lobbyist Brett Greene and consultant Darryl Rose. His office was known for its high turnover. One former council aide says Brown would sometimes bring his young children to the Wilson Building during the summer, and the unspoken command was that his staff watch the kids.
“An absolute dictator,” says one former aide. “Mini-tyrant,” says another.
Brown’s due in court on Friday, where he’s expected to plead guilty to a felony bank fraud charge. LL expects Machen to have a news conference afterward where he says he’s not close to being done.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery (slideshow of Kwame Brown here)
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