As Harry Thomas, Jr. readies to head off to federal prison, Kwame Brown ponders his possible sentence, and indictments of others still might be on the horizon it’s important to take stock of the cost of this culture of corruption. There are three important areas where these acts of corruption by public officials weigh heavily on all of us in the District: 1) Our own political ethos and confidence in ourselves; 2) the perception of us to those who ultimately control our political and financial fate; and 3) the real financial cost that we all have to pay for. Others have written recently about a culture of corruption in the District and it’s important to understand that corruption involves not just breaking the law but doing things that are unethical or not right. While presently Harry Thomas and Kwame Brown are the name de jour for corruption in the District there are other issues involving lottery contracts, constituent service funds, and sports tickets where folks might be following the letter of the law but it doesn’t mean they are acting ethically or in the best interest of the general public.
District citizens view the legislative body and government as a whole in a poor light. There seems to be a crisis in confidence directed toward the governing players in the District. Voter turnout was sadly low in the April primaries and really, as Robert McCartney recently wrote about, Kenyan McDuffie is the first sign of District voters finally looking for someone or something different than what we’ve had for the last few years as the culture of corruption has fed upon itself and gotten bigger and badder. While one election result seems to be a good sign questions still remain about whether District voters have reached a breaking point as to whether or not we will continue to allow things to operate as they have for the last several years. We need to have more confidence in ourselves and demand excellence from our leaders rather than settling for “well he/she isn’t as bad as the other candidate.”
Our laws and financial wherewithal are all subject to Congressional review and having 2/13 Council members plead guilty to felony charges in the last 6 months is not a great background scenery for oversight hearings. As I’ve noted before, District voters didn’t know these two individuals had committed crimes when they were elected, but it still sends off a bad image to those who are either indifferent towards us (the political party who claims to be our friend/defenders) or outright hostile toward us (the other political party who believes in local control in all cases except for the District). We have had a hard time on Capitol Hill for 212 years and now that we have even more public attention on the inappropriate actions of a few it might be a little harder for a little while but with all causes the work goes on. Our cause for equality is still right, as Mark Plotkin said recently on the Kojo Nnamdi Show “democracy is not a reward for good behavior.” Well said Mr. P!
And finally, in a time when budgets are tight and some social services are being cut back the District voters have been shelling out money to pay for all sorts of things the government has not budgeted for. Harry Thomas, Jr. stole $353,000 from us and is supposed to pay that back but we have no clue when we’ll get the money back or where it will come from. Additionally, he took home his salary for six months after District Attorney General Irv Nathan brought civil charges against him which is about $60,000 of salary earned post settlement on civil charges on top of the $318,000 we paid for the special election to replace him. So, Harry Thomas cost us at a minimum $713,000 and now we’ll have to deal with the election costs for Kwame’s replacement.
The Board of Elections and Ethics is making a good decision to have the Council Chair election the same day and the Presidential and other local elections, yet there’s a catch. Supposedly, both Phil Mendelson and Vincent Orange will run for the Chair position and if Mendo wins his At-Large seat will be vacated and thus a special election will need to be held. If V.O. wins the Chair and the At-Large seat (yes, his ego requires that he run for both at the same time) then he’d have to vacate the At-Large seat requiring another special election. Special elections for At-Large seats can cost up to $1 million to hold. Hearing that the actions of two legislators could put the District on the hook for $1.7 million in tight budget times is a real kick in the gut. First, they messed with our heads, then our hearts, and now our pockets.
The culture of corruption across the District needs to stop. Initiative 70 to ban corporate contributions could be one piece to the puzzle but it’s not an end in and of itself. The culture of corruption stops when we as District residents take hold of our democracy. We need to be active and engaged. We need to bring everyone to the table and hold everyone accountable to each other and for each other. We need to stop settling for mediocrity when there are so many great qualified people across this city who can and should serve. If we want to be a state, now is the time to seize our future and create a beckon of democracy in a place where our national government denies full democracy to use. We need to create a political culture and ethos among us that 618,000 people own and control this limited democratic entity but it’s ours and we want it exemplify the principles of participatory democracy. Corruption has shaken our confidence, harmed our image, and lightened our municipal purse but the soul of this city-state is still strong and it’s time to be the democratic vision we seek.
Thanks for reading,