WASHINGTON — The former chairman of the District of Columbia Council pleaded guilty Friday to lying about his income on bank loan applications, the latest blow to a city government rocked by scandal.
Kwame Brown also admitted to a misdemeanor campaign finance violation, capping a tumultuous week in which he forfeited his position as one of the city’s most influential powerbrokers.
His departure creates more turnover on the city’s governing body and follows the resignation of another councilmember who admitted to stealing public funds earmarked for youth sports programs.
The two resigned five months apart, and their departures this year — coupled with a federal probe of Mayor Vincent Gray’s 2010 campaign that has already produced guilty pleas from two campaign aides — have sent the district government into a tailspin. And the scandals likely aren’t helping efforts to gain greater budget autonomy, much less win more voting power for the district’s delegate to Congress or to secure the long-sought goal of statehood.
Corrupt officials have been brought down in other places, but the problem is magnified in a city where the governing body has only 13 members, effectively functions as a state legislature and operates less than three blocks from the White House.
“Whatever it’s resignations, investigations, whatever it is — I think it’s had a very bad effect,” said Councilwoman Mary Cheh, now the panel’s acting chairwoman. “People are feeling demoralized, I think they’re feeling disappointed.”
Cheh said the investigations risk setting back the goal of gaining more autonomy for district residents.
The latest developments began Friday morning when Brown, who resigned Wednesday after being charged, pleaded guilty to falsifying his income by tens of thousands of dollars on applications to gain a home equity loan and for funds to buy a boat. He admitted falsely listing a college friend as an employer, altering employment forms and lying about his position.
He then pleaded guilty Friday afternoon to a campaign finance violation stemming from a side bank account opened during his 2008 campaign.
Brown appeared both apologetic and defiant as he addressed reporters, noting that prosecutors had not charged him with stealing or misusing any campaign funds despite a long-running federal investigation. He appeared to choke up as he apologized to his family and the public.
“It has been a long and difficult journey,” he said. “Today, I am taking the first step in regaining the trust of the people I love and serve.”
The charges come five months after another councilmember, Harry Thomas Jr., resigned and pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $350,000 in government funds earmarked for youth sports and arts. He was sentenced to more than three years in prison.
‘A stain on the government’
Last month, two former Gray campaign aides pleaded guilty to charges arising from the 2010 mayoral race. One aide admitted lying to the FBI about straw donations to a minor candidate in the race. The other aide admitted funneling money and destroying evidence of the transactions. The payments were intended to keep the candidate, Sulaimon Brown, in the race so he could continue assailing then-Mayor Adrian Fenty as he sought reelection.
Sulaimon Brown told The Washington Post he had been paid and offered a job if Gray won. The statements prompted an investigation that began just two months after Gray took office and still continues. Gray has denied wrongdoing and has not been directly implicated.
There’s nothing new about political scandals in the capital city. Marion Barry drew national attention when, as mayor, he was caught on video smoking crack. He served six months in prison but staged a comeback, winning a fourth term as mayor and holding onto a Council seat despite other legal troubles.
The allegations come at a delicate time for the city, as district advocates have been lobbying Congress for more autonomy on fiscal affairs. Although district residents were given the freedom to elect a mayor and Council in 1973, Congress has the final say over the district’s budget and laws.
Nick Jeffress, executive director of the D.C. Republican Committee, said the scandals should make voters think hard about electing honest leaders who will have the clout and respect to push the statehood cause.
“We need to have that at the forefront of our minds — who are we electing and what sort of baggage might they bring,” Jeffress said.
Council members will meet next week to select an interim chair from among four at-large members. Cheh said the city government is still functioning and officials will work to win back trust.
But, she noted, “This is a stain on the government.”