An investigation by special counsel Robert Bennett into the District of Columbia City Council’s contract and grant distribution habits has revealed among other highlights, that Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry misused government funds, steering nearly $1 million into the coffers of nonprofits that he created and which were fraught with waste and abuse.
Among the eyebrow-raising findings of the 104-page report, which was overseen by Bennett, a former attorney for President Bill Clinton, the councilman personally delivered a contract payment check to his former aide and former girlfriend Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, then directed her to share a portion of the money with him.
According to a statement from Council Chairman Vincent Gray’s office surrounding findings of the investigation tagged The Bennett Report and which was conducted on a pro bono basis, the chairman described its contents as “deeply disconcerting.”
During a Feb, 17 meeting at the John A. Wilson Building in downtown Washington where members of the governing body gathered to receive the report, Gray gave an opening statement and answered questions from reporters. Otherwise, “He didn’t say that much about it,” said Gray’s spokeswoman Doxie McCoy.
The Council unanimously approved a resolution in mid-July that authorized Bennett to launch an investigation to determine if Barry violated laws or codes of ethics when, in light of his personal and sexual relationship with Watts-Brighthaupt, he awarded her a personal service contract in October 2008.
The contract, which totaled $60,000, was reportedly paid in monthly increments of $5,000. Watts-Brighthaupt, a highly qualified former lobbyist, was supposed to have developed a report on Emerging Leaders of Ward 8, but the project was dismantled in February 2009 after the Council’s Office of the Secretary initially found Watts-Brighhaupt’s level of performance lacking.
Barry has insisted there was nothing ethically amiss surrounding his hiring of Watts-Brighthaupt, who was paid $15,000 just before he terminated her contract.
The report, which also surrounds Council contracts and earmarks launched this past summer by Gray, further revealed that that when Barry delivered the contract payment check to Watts-Brighthaupt he insisted they go directly to the bank and that he waited in the car while she cashed the check. When she returned, he required her to hand over a portion of the money as repayment for loans that he’d made to her.
Although Watts-Brighthaupt did not recall how much money she turned over to Barry, she said it could have been several hundred or several thousand dollars, according to the report.
While Barry denied Brighthaupts’ claims that he required her to turn over funds, the report says Barry occasionally paid the former lobbyist’s mortgage, utility and car repair bills after learning she was in financial distress. Barry also bought her items she believed to be gifts, included jewelry and a coat.
Meanwhile, action on the report won’t occur until after Barry and his Council peers have had an opportunity to review the documents and send comments to Bennett. They could also ask Bennett for a supplemental report.
Gray commented after the meeting that he wanted to first read the report and then await responses before offering further elaboration.
Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham also said he had not yet reviewed the report, but heard some of its contents in the meeting.
“I think it raises some very troubling questions,” Graham said. “Policy questions and then questions relating to Councilman Barry.”
Graham said the City Council will discuss the report’s findings and determine their next steps.
“I’m interested in hearing from Councilman Barry because he is entitled to have his response,” Graham said. “I’m sure he’s going to come back with a response to all of this and I certainly want to pay attention to that.”
Ward 5 Councilman Harry Thomas said he had read most of the report but wanted to take time read it again. Thomas added that while the report focused a lot on particular individuals, there were some institutional issues he believes the Council should work to improve.
“The chairman went out and made sure we had an independent investigation and now we will figure out what we want to do with the findings,” Thomas said. “I think that it’s important that the City Council is showing that as body, that we’re interested in making sure that we have independent reviews on what we do to ensure there’s transparency.”
According to the report, steps were first taken to develop a general understanding of District law and City Council rules, policies and procedures. Afterward, preliminary information was gathered from the offices of the Council’s secretary and the budget director surrounding personal services contracts and earmark grants awarded in the past five fiscal years.
Based on that information, Bennett’s investigation enabled his team “to narrow the scope of review in each area to representative transactions that enabled them to identify and explore the full range of issued called for in the Council resolution,” the report stated.
In the process, information that included requests for interviews and subpoenas for documents and testimony, as well as views and recommendations of Council members regarding procedures for awarding personal service contracts and earmark grants, were initiated.