When I first read the headline last summer, I thought the article was written by “The Onion.” Titled Marion Barry lectures on ethics during chaotic Council session, it described a mind-blowing D.C. Council session during which Barry expressed anger over recent ethics scandals involving D.C. councilmembers.
Yes, that Marion Barry—the one who was filmed smoking crack cocaine and convicted of a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge while D.C. mayor, prosecuted in 2009 for failing to file taxes eight out of the last nine years, and has committed numerous other ethical violations and transgressions.
I was reminded of Barry’s ethics lecture last night when I received the following notification on my iPhone: D.C. Council censures Marion Barry for taking cash payments from city contractors. Is anyone even surprised anymore to read headlines like this?
According to the Washington Post, Barry accepted two cash “gifts” totaling $6,800 from D.C. construction companies — a violation of the D.C. Council’s code of conduct and a separate D.C. ethics law.
As the Washington Post explained:
One gift, of $2,800, was from Forney Enterprises, a company that recently completed work worth $1.8 million on an elementary school in Barry’s ward. The owner, Keith Forney, previously told The Post that the money was intended to pay Barry’s personal bills.
Sobin said Forney, in an interview with investigators, had a “foggy” recollection of the gift. Forney said he “felt bad” for Barry, Sobin recalled. Barry “looked like he needed some money, so [Forney] gave him some money,” Sobin said.
It gets better: the cash payment was passed from Forney to Barry during a meeting at the Stadium Club — a strip club co-owned by Forney.
The public learned about these cash “gifts” when Barry disclosed them on a financial disclosure form he filed with city ethics authorities in May of 2013. In July 2013, the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability censured Barry and fined him $13,600 for accepting illegal gifts from city contractors. On Tuesday evening, the D.C. Council voted 9 to 4 to censure Barry and strip him of his committee chairmanship.
To make matters worse, this was the second time in three years that the D.C. Council has censured Barry. In 2010, the Council censured and stripped him of his committee chairmanship “for giving a council contract to a girlfriend and directing city funds to nonprofit groups he created and controlled.” Barry regained the chairmanship position the following year. This time, Barry will not be eligible to regain the position until 2015.
Although the majority of Barry’s colleagues supported the censure, it is troubling that several voted against it — particularly given his long history of ethical and legal violations. It is also equally disturbing that voters continue to re-elect Barry despite his continued violations of the public trust. You have to wonder — what will it actually take for voters to stop tolerating this behavior?
Jessica Tillipman is a Senior Editor of the FCPA Blog. She’s the Assistant Dean for Field Placement and Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School, where she teaches an Anti-Corruption seminar. She also advises companies on FCPA compliance and government procurement-related issues. Follow her on Twitter at @JTillipman