WASHINGTON (AP/WJLA) - Former District of Columbia Councilmember Michael Brown’s sentencing Thursday for taking more than $50,000 in bribes is just the latest bruise for a local government that some say is plagued by corruption and pay-to-play politics.
Brown is one of three former members of the D.C. Council (the others are Harry Thomas Jr. and Kwame Brown) who pleaded guilty to felonies, including bribery and embezzlement, over the past few years. And then there’s embattled Mayor Vincent Gray, who lost his re-election bid when he was upset in the Democratic mayoral primary last month. He remains under federal investigation for a $668,000 campaign slush fund that prosecutors say he knew about; five people involved with his winning 2010 campaign have already been convicted in that case.
While the district is far from unique among U.S. cities that have suffered through a spate of criminal activity, some believe corruption has been enabled in part because many residents maintain political loyalties elsewhere or pay closer attention to the federal government, the district’s largest employer.
"We suffer the serious handicap of a citizen base that is only marginally invested in our success," said Johnny Allem, a 40-year veteran of city politics who worked as a spokesman for former Mayor Marion Barry, who was elected to a fourth term in the mid-1990s despite a drug conviction after being videotaped smoking crack cocaine in an FBI sting operation.
"Too many of our residents and citizens consider themselves travelers passing through," Allem observed.
Ron Faucheux, a veteran Washington-based pollster and the president of Clarus Research Group, said: "You have some people who make a living off of politics who live in Washington, D.C., and can't name their own member of the city council."
For those paying attention, there's plenty to gawk at. But Georgetown University political scientist Mark Rom contends "there's no evidence that Washington, D.C., is more corrupt than other major American cities.”
Corruption, he said, is often "invisible, so we don't really know how much is going on in different places before it gets exposed."
Earlier this year, former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin was convicted on 20 corruption charges, and late last year, former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in prison for corruption.
But those cities aren't under the thumb of Congress, which has the final say over Washington's budget and laws. District residents only gained the right to elect their mayor and council in 1973, and some say the district’s fight for greater local autonomy and voting representation in Congress has been hurt by the failures of local leaders.
Last year, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., compared the district's requests for greater autonomy to teenagers seeking more spending money from parents. Mica chairs a House subcommittee that oversees district government.
Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from northern Virginia and an advocate for district voting rights, said corruption certainly doesn't help the city's case for autonomy and emphasized that citizens must hold elected officials accountable.