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Mendelson to lead scandal-plagued D.C. Council

WASHINGTON — Phil Mendelson was selected Wednesday as interim chairman of the scandal-plagued D.C. Council, pledging to restore trust in a legislative body that’s lost two members this year to criminal convictions.

Mendelson replaces Kwame Brown, who resigned last week after he was charged with lying on bank loan applications. Brown pleaded guilty to that bank fraud charge along with a misdemeanor campaign finance violation.

Mendelson, a Democratic at-large councilmember in his fourth term, will serve as interim chairman until a special election in November. The winner of that race will serve the remainder of Brown’s term, which runs through 2014, and Mendelson said he intends to run.

Mendelson, 59, is quiet and detail-oriented — a contrast to the flashy, ambitious Brown — and is largely untouched by scandal. While he is not universally well-liked, he is respected for his meticulous approach to legislation.

“Right now, the symbol that is this council is tarnished,” Mendelson said in brief remarks on the council dais. “I ask everyone to pursue with me a very basic and seemingly lofty goal: Let us be honest, let us act with integrity, let us become individually and collectively an institution people can trust.”

The Council of the District of Columbia is a unique body that serves the functions of a local, municipal and state legislature. Council chairman is the district’s second-highest local elected office, and Mendelson will wield considerable influence over the city’s spending and legislative agenda. Should Mayor Vincent Gray leave office, Mendelson would succeed him, which would make him the first white mayor in the city’s history.

Gray, a Democrat, is the subject of a federal investigation for activities during his 2010 campaign, and two aides have already pleaded guilty to funneling payments to a minor mayoral candidate and trying to cover it up. Gray has denied knowledge of the payments and has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Federal authorities are also investigating prominent political donor and government contractor Jeffrey Thompson, a major Gray backer who has donated to nearly all the city’s elected officials, including Mendelson. The interim chairman was one of several councilmembers whose campaign received subpoenas seeking details of any Thompson-linked contributions. People familiar with the probe say Thompson is suspected of using straw donors to evade contribution limits. Mendelson has said there was nothing amiss about the money he got from Thompson.

In addition to Brown, former Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. stepped down this year after pleading guilty to embezzling more than $350,000 from the city. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

Councilmember Vincent Orange, an at-large Democrat who also sought the interim chairmanship, intends to challenge Mendelson in the special election, which has no primary and is open to outside candidates. All the current councilmembers can enter the race without risking their seats.