When the home of D.C. watchdog Dorothy Brizill and her husband Gary Imhoff burned to the ground last month, a committee of reporters, activists and government officials rose to the occasion. The committee launched a fundraising effort for the couple that has worked more than 30 years holding D.C. officials accountable.
The two-alarm fire erupted in the afternoon on May 4. The couple had left to take their car to a repair shop. They received a call from a reporter who said there was a report of a fire in the 1300 block of Girard Street, where they lived. Ten minutes later, WRC-TV reporter Tom Sherwood called and confirmed that it was their house. Immediately, Brizill called a contractor to assess the damage. The news was not good. Brizill and Imhoff lost everything – clothing, computers, books, art, and precious memorabilia. Even worse, the insurance company has refused to honor their claim.
“It was a personal loss, but also a loss of about 30 years of District history,” Brizill said in a phone interview this week. After more than three decades of work on community and citywide, it was like losing a major library and catalogue.
In 1995, they established DCWatch, a website modeled after the Citizens Union in New York, the Committee of Seventy in Philadelphia, and the Better Government Association of Chicago. They organized neighborhood watch groups to stare down drug dealers, and challenged elected officials on government corruption, waste, fraud, and abuse. Brizill covered government hearings and business more vigorously than many reporters. She dug deep into city records and asked tough questions at hearings and press conferences. She was the reason then-Mayor Anthony Williams had to mount a write-in campaign to win his re-election. Brizill had uncovered discrepancies on the petitions Williams initially submitted to get his name on the mayoral election ballot.
In the fire, they lost original files of D.C. government proceedings; files that likely do not have duplicates. “Before the Control Board shut down its website, we had captured all their documents,” Brizill said. “We had drafts of proposals. We had original drafts, original testimony, and chronological history on important issues. Some of those original drafts don’t get captured in the archives.”
Losing everything was devastating. “When everything you’ve accumulated in your life is just gone, it is life-altering,” Brizill said. “It’s a very sobering effect…We’re just overwhelmed by things we never thought we would be overwhelmed by.”
But out of the ashes, their neighbor’s altruism emerged. “I think it has brought out the best of people in D.C.,” Brizill said. “That’s what has been heartening. Even people I would identify as my political opposition have been generally helpful. That’s the aspect of D.C. I really like.”
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe arrived on the scene and offered comnfort. Red Cross offered hotel accommodations for four days. Next, a friend provided a spare bedroom. Seeing that Brizill had only the clothes she was wearing, another friend introduced her to a friend who is a clothes vendor. The clothing vendor gave shoes, clothes, even stockings.
Dorothy and Gary are very private, reluctant to seek help. But when their insurance claim was denied, they needed the help of friends. A committee of reporters and other activists rallied to the cause with a fundraising effort. They circulated a letter seeking donations.
“The proof of Dorothy and Gary’s dedication is in their record of achievement: When residents were concerned about the safety of the city’s drinking water, they made available a secret WASA database that detailed lead level readings for every home in the District. They advocated for community policing. They fought for more support for small businesses along neighborhood commercial corridors,” the letter says.
“Dorothy Brizill and Gary Imhoff are as essential to the District of Columbia as air. “Government accountability and vigorous oversight of public service would virtually evaporate without them.” Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King said recently, according to the letter. Robert Brannum, president emeritus of the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations, noted their “selfless service. Other reporters, including WUSA-TV’s Bruce Johnson, former Washington Post reporter Yolanda Woodley, and Washington Examiner Jonetta Rose Barras lent their support.
“This time, Dorothy and Gary need our help,” the letter concludes. “Please write your check to: Emergency Relief Fund for Brizill and Imhoff, c/o PNC Bank, 800 17th St. NW Washington, DC 20006 Attn: Maggie.