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UPDATED, 12:35 P.M.
Well, it sure as hell wasn’t a whitewash.
Attorney Bob Bennett this morning presented the findings of a
five- seven-month investigation into D.C. Council contracts and earmarks—-a probe prompted by the shenanigans of Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry this summer. [Download a PDF of the report’s executive summary; download the full report.]
The blockbuster finding is that Barry handed council checks to girlfriend Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, then ordered her to go to a bank, cash the checks, and give him part of the proceeds. Barry, in a deposition, protested that any money she handed over was to repay loans Barry had given.
But, Bennett noted today, the “evidence is overwhelming” that Barry illegally took city funds. He called for the council to refer the matter to the U.S. attorney and the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance.
The other part of the Bennett investigation concerned the longstanding council practice of awarding “earmarks”—-noncompetitive grants to various nonprofits favored by councilmembers. Bennett and his team, following Washington City Paper’s reporting on the matter, found massive irregularities with the process by which several nonprofits, created at Barry’s behest, were funded and operated. Like City Paper, Bennett found that incorporation documents were forged, that large amounts of money were steered to political supporters, and that Barry remained in control of the groups.
In testimony before the council today, Bennett pointed to two Barry cronies who personally benefited from the earmarking arrangement—-Brenda Richardson, his constituent service director, who made more than $100,000 through the groups, and Anthony Motley, the at-large council candidate, who made more than $50,000.
Aside from the critique of Barry’s practices, investigators were just as critical of the earmarking process writ large. Prior to the presentations of the report’s findings, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray announced a number of changes he planned to make to the earmarking process. But Bennett & Co. made clear that any changes to the system would be little more than cosmetic.
Bennett testified that there has been “little transparency, “no competition,” and “little or no accountability” in earmarking. Earmarks, another investigator reported, provide “substantial opportunities for waste and abuse”; the official recommendation is that the council “seriously consider ending earmark grantmaking as currently practiced.”
Bennett called the earmarks “like a narcotic drug” to politicians. Once they start using them, they can’t get enough of them.
Barry’s misbehavior didn’t end then the contracts and earmarking was exposed. Bennett described a campaign by Barry to obstruct his investigation, in part by minimizing the seriousness of the probe and attacking its legitimacy, and in part by attempting to convince Watts-Brighthaupt not to share key evidence with investigators.
In the end, Bennett concluded, Barry “breached the high ethical standards expected on him” and “breached the public trust.”
Bennett, before presenting his findings, explained that over the course of the inquiry, a team of dozens of lawyers spanning two top firms (he moved from Skadden Arps to Hogan & Hartson amid the probe) “collected and reviewed 575,000 pages of documents obtained from numerous sources” since the council authorized the investigation in July.
Barry for his part protested mightily Bennett’s investigations and its findings, protesting inquiries into his sexual behavior and noting the lack of “written procedures” for awarding personal service contracts.
Bennett swatted the latter claim away readily: “I wouldn’t expect the city council to have written rules—-with all due respect, sir—-that you should not give [contracts] to people you have a relationship with.”
Barry’s ultimate defense: “I don’t apologize for getting as many resources to the ward as I can.” Never mind that the investigation found that most of those resources found their way into the pockets of Barry’s political allies rather than his greater constituency.
“We couldn’t have been more fair to Mr. Barry,” Bennett said before the dais. “We plain and simple found that he did some things wrong.”