Corrupt Leaders Hamper D.C.'s Quest For Autonomy

The chairman of Washington, D.C.'s city council resigned Wednesday night, as federal prosecutors moved to bring campaign finance and bank fraud charges against him. Kwame Brown is the second member of the council to resign amid corruption charges in the last few months. And Mayor Vincent Gray has been dogged throughout his tenure by allegations of misuse of campaign funds.

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When it comes to that other government in Washington, D.C., the city government, the investigation isn't about leaks. It's about bank fraud. The city council chairman, Kwame Brown, resigned last night after facing that charge in federal court and prosecutors filed another charge today. This time, a misdemeanor involving Brown's campaign finances. This just adds to a list of corruption accusations against D.C. officials.

NPR's Allison Keyes tells us how that's playing here in the nation's capital.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: For months, the former council chair had been dealing with probes of both his personal finances and of his 2008 city council campaign, but as recently as Tuesday, the politician nicknamed Fully Loaded after an uproar involving a fancy city leased SUV was telling reporters...

KWAME BROWN: I have no plans to resign, so that's all I'm going to say about that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Step back and give him room, please. Will you all step back and give room.

KEYES: But, last night, Kwame Brown did just that. Wading through a maelstrom of reporters, he beamed as they shouted questions at him.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Why are you smiling?

BROWN: I'm stunned. I'm shocked. I'm disappointed. I'm saddened.

KEYES: Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, himself under investigation for his 2010 campaign, said last night...

MAYOR VINCENT GRAY: This is not something that I ever would have imagined could have occurred.

KEYES: Franklin Garcia, president of the Democratic D.C. Latino Caucus, was surprised because Brown had indicated publicly that he wasn't worried.

FRANKLIN GARCIA: I don't think that a lot of us expected this to come in this quick.

KEYES: Garcia worries that the Brown charges could affect the city's quest for political and financial autonomy. Currently, Congress must review and pass the District's budget.

GARCIA: It's going to be a little bit of a step backwards for a lot of the work we're doing, particularly in - you know, in statehood and self-determination.

KEYES: But Mike DeBonis, who covers city government for the Washington Post, says even though some lawmakers might try to use this as an argument that D.C. shouldn't get more control, it's unprecedented.

MIKE DEBONIS: People think that the District government has been corrupt for a long time. They think of Marion Barry getting arrested for drug charges, but keep in mind that that - the Marion Barry investigation ended in a single misdemeanor charge.

KEYES: In addition to the ongoing probes into Gray's and Brown's campaigns, two of Gray's former campaign aides pleaded guilty last month to federal campaign finance charges. Also last month, former council member Harry Thomas, Jr. was sentenced to 38 months in prison after pleading guilty to embezzling more than $350,000 from city taxpayers.

But DeBonis says, while all that looks bad, it doesn't reflect how the district's government is actually running.

DEBONIS: By and large, the basic operations of city government are taking place without a hitch. I mean, the trash is getting picked up. You know, the traffic tickets are still getting written. I can assure you of that.

KEYES: A hearing in federal court is set for tomorrow in the Kwame Brown case and the city council is meeting next week to elect an interim council chair.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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