Best known as "Bunk" from the TV series "The Wire," Wendell Pierce is now working to rebuild his old neighborhood, Pontchartrain Park, one of New Orleans' first middle-class African American communities.
Guest Host: Marc Fisher
A former D.C. Council member receives a federal sentence for his role in a corruption scandal. The U.S transportation secretary pushes Virginia politicians on a massive rail project. And Maryland lawmakers inch closer to a special session. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies, and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
- Tom Sherwood Resident Analyst; NBC 4 reporter; and Columnist for the Current Newspapers
- Gerald Connolly Member, U.S. House of Representatives (D-VA, 11th District);
- Ronald Machen Jr. United States Attorney for the District of Columbia.
Politics Hour Extra
U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. discusses the sentencing of former D.C. Council Member Harry Thomas Jr. Machen said that those convicted usually serve 85 percent of their sentence in the federal system. Thomas received a 38-month sentence for stealing government funds:
MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Politics Hour." I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. This was the week of saying no in the D.C. area. The D.C. Council said no to extending bar hours deep into the night to raise a few million dollars in extra tax money. Loudoun County supervisor said it's looking -- said they're looking more and more like they will say a big no to extending Metro to Dulles Airport and into their county.
MR. MARC FISHERThat's a check they do not want to write. A federal judge said a very big no, no to former D.C. Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. His theft of more than $350,000 from D.C. children now means he will spend 38 months behind bars. And the United States attorney for the District, Ron Machen, will join us to talk about why he wanted the judge to say no to that sentence and impose an even tougher one on Thomas.
MR. MARC FISHERBut first, Tom Sherwood, of NBC 4, what will it take for the cloud that has been covering over the District government ever since Vincent Gray took office as mayor to finally move on? Will there be more indictments? Would that clear the air? What will it take?
MR. TOM SHERWOODI wish I could answer whether there will be more indictments. I would love to know that answer.
FISHERWe'll find that out momentarily.
SHERWOODBut I would say this, you know, we have -- I've said this before. We don't have a wet blanket hanging over the city. We have a wet mattress, a heavy mattress that's -- virtually nothing can be said or done without seeing it through the prism of, well, is the mayor going to be around for this? Is the council chairman, Kwame Brown, is going to be around? There's two separate investigations.
SHERWOODThe sentencing yesterday of Harry Thomas Jr. provided some relief to move forward. Several councilmembers said, now, let's move forward, let's move forward. But, you know, last week on this very program, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells says he doesn't believe that the councilmembers have gotten the message that there's no pay for play in this government. So I think the ethics quagmire that we're in will continue for some time. But can we talk about the sports this weekend before we get too serious?
FISHERWell, all right.
FISHERBriefly, we'll get into it because it is an amazing weekend. The Caps yet again going up against the Rangers, and a -- it's way too early in the season for there to be a do-or-die series. But the Nationals and the Phillies at Nats Park on both -- tonight's game...
SHERWOODTake back the park.
FISHERTonight's game and Sunday's game both on national television. First time in -- a Nats game has been on the ESPN Sunday Game since the first season of this team's existence. And the question is, who will be there tonight?
SHERWOODI, you know, I did a story in February about this when the Nats said let's sell the tickets to the local people, only people in this immediate area could buy tickets. Of course, that -- it infuriated the Philly fans who are, you know, obnoxious and furious anyway. So they made all these efforts to get their tickets. They said they're going to show up tonight. It's just going to be an amazing scene outside Nats Stadium tonight.
FISHERAnd for instant legal analysis, we need to turn to our first guest, the United States attorney for the District of Columbia, Ronald Machen. Could...
U.S. ATTY. RONALD MACHEN JR.We can keep talking about sports.
FISHERWell, I have a semi-legal question for you.
FISHERWould it be legal for a team, such as the Nationals, to say we are not selling tickets to Phillies fans?
JR.I cannot answer that question.
SHERWOODOr do you want to?
JR.We can have somebody research that, but that's outside my area of responsibility.
SHERWOODYou're pretty excited about the hockey game on Saturday.
JR.I am. I'm a hockey fan. I've become a hockey fan.
SHERWOODIt's a -- you are a sports person in school, right?
JR.That's right. That's right. Yeah, I played football.
SHERWOODI mean, football -- football.
JR.That's right. That's right.
SHERWOODWell, you ought to make it out to the Nats Stadium this weekend.
JR.I may try to do that.
SHERWOODIf the Philly fans act up as much as they, I think, might, maybe you'll have some cases.
FISHERWell, one set of cases that you do have is -- involving what I imagine would be one of the more difficult things for a United States attorney to deal with, and that is public corruption in a city such as Washington where you have one jurisdiction, and that is the District. And you've moved aggressively against Harry Thomas, and, you know, we know we're not going to get a whole lot of details from you about the other investigations.
FISHERBut talk a little bit about the difficulty of handling cases in a city where a large number of officials are under some sort of cloud. Do you feel an obligation to move more quickly because of the effect that that cloud has on the government?
JR.Well, we feel an obligation to move quickly but also carefully. And we know there's a sense of urgency in my office, and my prosecutors are working very hard, a lot of late nights, long weekends. But we have a very important job to do, and we can only move forward once we examine all the facts. And it's not fair to anyone to just have an allegation, and then for the U.S. Attorney's Office to move because that would impugn their integrity unfairly if there's not enough evidence.
JR.So we take our time, but we understand there's a sense of urgency. And we're working as hard as we can, but we got to be thorough.
FISHERAnd there's talk of as many as four members of the D.C. Council being under investigation. You read this stuff in the press. You're constrained in what you can say about which folks are under investigation. But does there come a time when you would say so and so is no longer under investigation or is not under investigation just to clear them?
JR.Well, we really try not to talk about that sort of stuff. It hinders our investigative efforts. And again, these investigations are conducted with us but we also -- we have the FBI. We have the IRS. We have a lot of different partners in this. And so we like to fly under the radar and not let folks know what's going on. And so I really try not to talk about it. We have confirmed that we're looking into the Kwame Brown situation, and that we're looking into the Sulaimon Brown allegations.
JR.And, obviously, there's been a lot of media coverage about a search warrant that we issued with respect to Mr. Thompson. But we really can't talk about any of that stuff.
SHERWOODI think, in general, I mean, you said on the program last summer about the need to be as thorough as possible. I mean, your office has a reputation of doing such thoroughness that you get pleas as opposed to trials, which is better for everyone involved. If somebody -- if someone who's not involved in our business ask me, how long this has taken, and they said, well, is the prosecutor dragging his feet, or has the investigation itself guiding -- gotten more broad and wider than what was initially thought to be just one person, Sulaimon Brown?
SHERWOODAnd I think the answer, obviously, is there's a lot of going on. But can you answer that? Are you dragging your feet? Of course, the answer to that is no. But is it broader than it was last summer?
JR.Well, the answer to the first question is no. We're not dragging our feet. We're working very hard. You know, I live here in the city as well, and I know, you know, the sense of urgency here. And I know how important these matters are. The answer to the second question is I can't talk about it. I really can't talk about the scope of our inquiry.
FISHERRon Machen is the United States attorney for the District of Columbia. Tom Sherwood is an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. You can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850 or make a comment at our website, kojoshow.org. You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow. And, Ron Machen, when your office had sought a longer sentence in the case of Harry Thomas, the defense, obviously, wanted something dramatically shorter.
FISHERI know you expressed your satisfaction with the sentence after it was issued. But what was the rationale for a longer sentence?
JR.Well -- and we've been consistent since the beginning. We thought just about four years would be the right sentence for this conduct. Mr. Thomas was a councilmember. He was somebody who had a reputation, which we recognize for helping young folks, mentoring young people. But it was that reputation as someone that mentor folks which allowed him to help perpetrate this scheme and to use programs, money that was intended to put on programs for kids, that actually was funneled through to his bank account.
JR.And so we thought that because of his status as a public official and because he had in many ways used his history of community service to help perpetrate this scheme that we thought a longer sentence was called for. But we are very satisfied with what the judge did. Judge Bates is a great judge. He -- you know, that's why -- that's our system. You have two sides. He had very skilled defense attorneys that presented their case. We presented our case. And the judge decides. And so justice was served.
SHERWOODFor those who aren't involved in the legal system, Thomas got 38 months in prison for the theft or the stealing of the money, the federal money through the city program. So he gets concurrent 36 months on three false income tax returns he filed. But there's no parole in the federal system. So of the 30, will he serve the 38 months minus good time, good behavior time, or will he be 38 months? How does that work? For those who want him to be punished, what will these 38 months mean?
JR.Every situation is different. But normally, in the fees system, you do roughly about 85 percent of the sentence. So, you know, usually, for every 12 months, you can do 10 months or more. But it can change based on your conduct and based -- that's really determined by the Bureau of Prisons, but -- so it's a significant sentence no matter how you (unintelligible).
SHERWOODAnd he will be going to report to a prison after the federal Bureau of Prisons sends him a letter telling him when and where...
SHERWOOD...and that's usually in the next 60 days or roughly speaking.
JR.That's a few months. But it's important also to understand the death of the punishment here. Harry Thomas is not only is going to jail. He had to forfeit all the money that he got through his conduct. So he doesn't keep -- get to keep any of that. He lost his job. He had to step down. Obviously, his reputation was hurt. And I think, as you heard from him yesterday, if you ask him today was it worth it, he would tell you absolutely not. And that's the strong message that hopefully everyone takes away from this.
SHERWOODAnd can I just wrap that up? The judge -- Judge Bates said that there was a question of restitution. There were some testimony and documents that showed the loss to the city about $446 million. The parties had agreed to about $353 million. The judge in the next...
SHERWOODExcuse me -- yes.
SHERWOODMillions, thousands -- I've been in Washington too long.
JR.That would be a different case.
SHERWOODIt's all dollar signs to me. But the judge said he will take some new testimony from you -- or argument from you guys and to make that decision, how much he has to repay. But can you realistically pay the money back? I mean...
JR.Well, I'm not sure of his financial situation. His lawyers have represented that he can't. But what we did is we agreed that he should be responsible for the money that he received from his scheme. But there's an argument. And we always knew this -- that probation could take, and they did take it -- that he should be held responsible for the entire amount of money that was taken from the scheme, even though it -- if it didn't go to him, if it was used for purposes that weren't intended, that he should be held accountable.
JR.And, obviously, that's something that the judge is going to wrestle with. We always knew that was an issue. And, obviously, in looking at the case, we look at all the different factors. And that's why we thought we had given him -- we'd given him credit for accepting responsibility. We'd given him credit in our view for his history of service, and so all of that came into play in our decision about how much money to hold him accountable for.
FISHERAnd are you...
SHERWOODIn D.C. -- I'm sorry.
FISHERAre you confident that -- I mean, obviously, the Thomas case was one that unfolded over some time. You have all these other investigations going on. But are you confident that you're finding out about all the corruption or all the major corruption that's in the D.C. government?
FISHERI ask because Alan Suderman in the City Paper, "The Loose Lips" column, wrote this week, essentially arguing that the Thomas case was discovered more or less by dumb luck and that although the investigations that followed the initial tip were very well done, that political motivations and luck played a role in at least getting the ball rolling on this and some of the other major corruption investigations. Is that a reasonable argument?
JR.Well, I think there were certainly -- there were allegations made, and then there were some investigations. Obviously, the Office of the Attorney General looked at this. We had looked at it. We never talk about what we're doing publicly. But it's important to understand, when you look oversight, we're only going to act if there's criminal conduct.
JR.And a lot of what people are talking about in the media is about behavior that they don't agree with or something that's improper. And we don't police that, and so that's not for us to look at. And so, when allegations are made, we follow up on them vigorously, and we act if there's been a violation of criminal laws. But oftentimes, we may not act, and it doesn't mean that something was not inappropriate behavior. It just means it didn't rise to the level of being criminal.
SHERWOODI don't recall -- maybe you can answer this. I know that Jo-Ann Armao of The Post's editorial page, wrote some stinging reports about Thomas' behavior, and the candidate in the prior election had brought it all up. And then the attorney general got involved and kind of went forward with the case. But at what point do you decide that -- was it when the attorney general sent it to you guys? I mean, I don't know when you got involved.
JR.No, we were looking at the case. The attorney general did a nice job on this matter. And Irvin Nathan is a good man, good prosecutor. But our investigation was broader in scope. There's a different standard. We have to prove our case beyond a reasonable doubt, so our investigation was going before that. And, obviously, it covered things that weren't brought in the civil suit.
SHERWOODThe judge said yesterday that one of the factors in this sentencing law is that Harry Thomas (unintelligible) has been cooperating with the prosecutors. What did that mean?
JR.Well, we really don't -- we don't talk about cooperation. It can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different folks. So I think I probably (unintelligible).
SHERWOODFrom just answering, just being polite and showing up on time? That's cooperating.
JR.Yeah, well, it's just normally not something we talk about when somebody's being cooperating. But I will tell you, normally if, at a sentencing, we think there's been substantial cooperation, that is something we bring forward. So...
FISHERAnd every time we have a corruption case, there are people more from out of town than from in town who say this is yet another example of how the District of Columbia can't govern itself. Is there -- do you think there is relatively more corruption in the D.C. government than in other big cities, or is it pretty standard across the country?
JR.I don't think there's more. I mean, you know, you have these cases coming out of all parts of the country, and so I really think that's an unfair argument. I think we have great public officials, but, like any city, you're going to have folks that lose their way. And so, obviously, right now, there's been a number of cases going on, and we're looking at these. But I haven't done an analysis, but I would bet that there's not more going on with our elected officials here than in other cities.
SHERWOODAnd can I -- I would like to say this as a citizen of the city, and I say, you know, our city has not essentially four mayors prison like Illinois has, four governors in 40 years. I mean, I would be happy to put up our corruption record against New Orleans and Boston and other places and other states. And it's...
FISHERIn fact, even with all of the scandals we've talked about over the years, Harry Thomas is the first member of the D.C. Council ever to resign...
SHERWOODThat's right, to resign and then all of that. So I think there is a certain racial aspect to the program because of the concerns. And so I just think people ought to be aware of what's happening in this city. One ounce of corruption is bad, in my opinion. I do think that we ought to just not compare the city, make it sound like -- I hate it when people say it's a Third World country, and it runs like a Third World country. I just -- I find that just insulting, racist and wrong. And I want every person who's done something wrong to go to jail.
JR.I agree with you on all counts.
FISHERAbsolutely. Absolutely. Let's take a look at a slightly different issue, the issue of an elected attorney general. Obviously, this is something that has been discussed for many years in the District. It's coming, as the first election is scheduled for 2014. Would you -- I mean, I don't want you to give away your job to someone else. But do you think that ideally, structurally, there ought to be more authority vested in an elected attorney general handling a larger portion of the cases that are traditionally handled by local prosecutors everywhere but in the District of Columbia?
JR.Well, I think -- you know, and that's really for the legislators to decide that, the voters. What I will tell you is this: our system is set up to handle local prosecutions. We got one of the best local DA's offices in the country. I have DAs from all over the country coming here to try to ask how we do things. Our model of community prosecution, which was initiated by Eric Holder over 15 years ago, the now-attorney general, is a model for how people do local prosecutions.
JR.We have -- we've done so many different community outreach events. We do them each month. We probably do 30 or 40 different events a month, so we're -- and we're very focused on the intervention prevention aspects of law enforcement, as well as the aggressive enforcement component. So I think we do a great job. We have community prosecutors in each and every district that interact with residents on the issues and challenges they face. And I'll tell you, it's a real model for how to go about prosecution.
SHERWOODI get all the press releases that Bill Miller sends out on the activities you're -- and the public corruption issue is something you really have, either personally or as an institution, taken on because you have not only the city cases that don't make news, but you have federal cases, the national cases, people who are stealing money or all kinds of schemes. How important is public corruption in terms of all the things you do, which can be international espionage? I mean, you have a lot going on, but public corruption is high on the list, on the top of the list?
JR.It's very, very high on the list. And national security is very, very high on the list, probably number one.
SHERWOODBut it's got to be number one, right? Just by default.
JR.By default, but public corruption is right up there because, when you have public corruption, it erodes trust in our government. It creates cynicism, undermines the confidence of the voters. And so it's really important that our elected officials act with integrity and honor. And if they don't, people want to see them being held accountable. And that's the importance of the case yesterday. You see somebody being held accountable for their misconduct.
FISHERAnd do you think there is a deterrent effect to a sentence like we saw with Harry Thomas? I mean, obviously, you said you wanted to send a message to public officials that this kind of behavior is unacceptable. But when you look at the motivations behind an act such as Harry Thomas', you know, do you think he's really weighing in his mind, let's see, the four years in jail versus getting the money?
JR.I'm sure you are. It's not worth it at the end of the day. First of all, you get a nice luxury vehicle. You get a motorcycle. You don't keep them. I got -- we got those, and we're going to sell them and give the money back to the government. And you're going to be going to jail. And if you ask him today, were these items worth it? I guarantee you, he'll tell you, no. And...
FISHERWell, yes, but after the fact, he clearly realizes that. But before the fact, if you're another public official and an opportunity presents itself and somebody's bribing you or whatever it is, do you really think there is a deterrent effect in addition to that sense of consequences?
JR.I definitely think there's a deterrent effect. Any, you know, Tom and I were talking about this outside a little bit. For someone that's not used to the criminal justice system, if you spend a day in jail, one day is one day too many for most of us. And so I think most individuals are frightened about that. But when you're seeing somebody like that who is a public official, a respected public official, now going to prison, that will definitely get your attention. And I think you do think about that when you are tempted to lose your way.
SHERWOODI look at one program on cable TV, and that's enough for me. Those "Lockup" programs and all that stuff 'cause that's really, I mean, might be some dramatization, but that's real life there.
JR.That's right. That's right.
FISHERI know you have to go to in a couple of minutes. Let's take a quick call if we can. Here's Chris in Anne Arundel County. Chris, you're on the air.
CHRISYeah, I had a quick comment. I recently located out here from the West Coast, and my -- you know, my pride was pumped up 'cause I was closer to the nation's capital. And lately I've been very disappointed at the -- all the corruption and allegations of corruption here at the local level. That's all I have to say.
FISHERYeah, these cases do have an impact on the reputation of the city and...
SHERWOODWe're the nation's capital after all, so we do get a little oomph for that.
FISHERAnd certainly, you know, the legacy of the former mayor sort of put a spotlight on the city in a way that other cities may not have had.
JR.I mean, I think that's true, but, again, as Tom said, when you look nationwide, I don't think there's much of a difference. One of the biggest cases we have is a federal corruption case, one of the biggest federal contracting fraud schemes in our nation's history. Those individuals live in Virginia. They just happened to steal money as part of a scheme at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and we're in the middle of that case, so I should say allegedly, even though some individuals have plead guilty in that case.
JR.But they're in Virginia and -- but as the nation's capital, we handle those cases. And so you got to be careful about reading too much into the cases we bring because we have -- we bring cases not only that happen in D.C. but happen across the country and across the world.
SHERWOODWhen's the next shoe going to drop?
SHERWOODHe's not going to answer.
FISHERIs it -- do you keep the politics -- the political calendar in mind? In other words, would you allow the mayor's first term to run through before coming to a close on some of these cases?
JR.We really -- that's something else we probably wouldn't talk about so...
SHERWOODYou act when you have the facts, right?
FISHEROK. One last call...
SHERWOODI'll be a spokesman for you.
FISHEROne last call from Grant in Washington who asks about a different kind of case that you might be prosecuting. Grant, it's your turn.
GRANTYeah, just following up on what Tom mentions about espionage and deterrence. You commented on Stewart Nozette being sentenced to 13 years in prison for attempted espionage for Israel trying to sell $2 billion in U.S. secrets. Specifically, you said that we don't have any information that he passed classified information and that you believe that you thwarted any of that before it happened. Yet the FBI wiretaps clearly showed that he had already sold a quarter million dollars of secrets to Israel aircraft industries.
GRANTAnd this was a company that was involved in Iran contra, involved in aircraft. We're (unintelligible)...
FISHEROK. Let's give Ron Machen a chance to comment on it.
JR.Well, I think you're off on your facts a little bit -- obviously, when you're putting monetary figures to the value, to the information -- and I think you're off about this sort of information. I will tell you that Stewart Nozette was sentenced to 13 years. He did engage in conduct where he was willing to sell information to a foreign government, and we did act. It was a FBI operation. It was a fantastic operation, and, hopefully, that deters others that are thinking about being traitors to our country.
FISHERRon Machen is the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. Thanks very much for being with us today.
FISHERAnd Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and columnist for The Current Newspapers. And, Tom, our earlier comments about the Nats and the Phillies managed to raise the ire of David in Washington. David, it's your turn.
DAVIDHi. Tom, this is the anonymous Phillies fan you interviewed a while ago. I want to point out that you say Phillies fans are obnoxious. If the Nats had any fans, they'd probably be obnoxious.
SHERWOODWell, you -- I knew that was going to get me in trouble. But here's the thing: The Phillies fans are happy to tell me that they're obnoxious, that they come down to the stadium, particularly our stadium, to be obnoxious because they think it's so cool to make us Nats fans all upset about it. So it's like it's a practiced obnoxiousness. I'm not sure how sincere it is, but -- and you're good at it, I might add.
FISHERAnd it's sort of -- yeah, they are pretty good at it. It is sort of sad that they have to travel a couple of hundred miles to -- or 100 miles to go (unintelligible).
SHERWOODAny reason to get out of Philadelphia, I guess.
FISHERYeah, I would imagine.
SHERWOODI mean, I don't know.
FISHERI guess so. Well, it -- I mean, that said, it will be interesting to see what the divide is in the ballpark tonight and through the weekend between Nats and Phillies fans, and whether this campaign by the Nats to reclaim the park on Phillies weekends will really have much of an impact. We started off by discussing this decision by the D.C. council to say no to an extension of bar hours in the city, another attempt by Mayor Vince Gray to raise some money. This time his proposal was to extend bar hour closing times from 3 a.m. to 4 a.m., not exactly a popular move...
SHERWOODOn the weekends.
FISHEROn the weekends. Not exactly a popular move in some neighborhoods where there are lots of bars and nightclubs. And the D.C. council committee that oversees alcohol issues voted 3-2 against this, another defeat for the mayor. And now the question is: where is the money going to come from to fill this budget gap?
SHERWOODWell, Phil -- Jim Graham, the chairman of the committee that oversees this, said that he was voting to kill it because of the peace, order and tranquility issues within neighborhoods, and that he has now said that he will look at maybe increasing the wholesale tax on alcohol, like, six cents per serving. That's a substantial amount of money, $20 million as opposed to extending bar hours and raising $3 million.
SHERWOODThat, in turn, has prompted a -- what is to be, I'm told, a huge demonstration that the council this coming Tuesday by the wholesalers, and the bar owners, and the restaurant owners, and other business people who do not want this tax on alcohol to go up. But the mayor wanted to -- most people said they would raise more than $3 million. And the question is, is the city becoming the 24-hour city? The Hamilton Restaurant downtown, it opened as a 24-hour space, but I think, for now, it's cut back. It's closing around 2 o'clock in the morning 'cause (unintelligible).
FISHERAnd it's interesting. They said that it really wasn't a lack of business. They were doing quite well with the after-bar crowd coming in. The problem was the behavior of the people...
FISHER...coming in who were kind of too rowdy for the more sedate sort of nightclub setting that Hamilton had in mind. Well, we now welcome into the show Gerald Connolly. He's a member of the United States House of Representatives, a Democrat from Virginia's 11th District. And, Congressman Connolly, thanks so much joining us.
REP. GERALD CONNOLLYMy great pleasure.
FISHERWe learned this week that there are continuing negotiations with Loudoun County executives and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about whether or not this Metro plan for extending the Silver Line all the way to Dulles Airport will actually go ahead. This is the second and final phase of a $3 billion plan, and the folks in Loudoun have been playing hardball. They don't want to spend the money, and they don't agree on how the labor for the project would be chosen and paid. Is this going to get solved?
CONNOLLYI hope so. You know, what happened, of course, was we had elections last November, and Loudoun had a real big turnover in this board. They elected a much more conservative and an all-Republican board. I'm hopeful, though, that as those new members really looked at the long-term economic interests of Loudoun, they will see the wisdom of going forward with Loudoun's participation. I don't know -- I'm not convinced that Loudoun, participating or not, is going to be dispositive with respect to the project.
CONNOLLYTheir participation is about 4.8 percent of the total financing, and that includes the stop at the airport and two stops after that. If they want to take themselves out of the Dulles Corridor, I think, in long term, that's going to really be very injurious to Loudoun's own interest. I mean, in the city, just asked retailers and merchants and residents of Georgetown how wise the decision to opt out at Metro looks in retrospect.
SHERWOODThen -- Congressman, Tom Sherwood. Then how does it get resolved? How do you -- what happens next if -- for everyone to be on board? How quickly will this be resolved so people can move forward?
CONNOLLYWell, they have...
SHERWOODIs there some deadline coming up or something?
CONNOLLYYeah. They extended the deadline another couple of month's time, and hopefully, that will give Loudoun a chance to look at all the facts. But as I said, whether they participate or not, I believe that the phase two will go forward. It's just too critical for the region.
FISHERSo -- if they say no, who picks up that bill?
CONNOLLYWell, 4.8 percent hurts, but it's not, as I said, dispositive.
SHERWOODWill they still get the stops over or just...
CONNOLLYNo, no. Obviously, if Loudoun County were to opt out of this program, it would lose its two stops. Who would pay for that?
FISHERSo the line would end at Dulles Airport and...
FISHER...the portion that Loudoun was supposed to pay would be picked up by Fairfax or by feds or both?
CONNOLLYWell, remember, we have lots of players here. We have the airports authority. We have the state. We have Fairfax. We have the federal government. And I believe that those actors can, if necessary, reallocate the expenses, and some of the expenses go down with the loss of those two stations, and the extension of Metro in Loudoun as well.
SHERWOODGov. McDonnell was not too interested in adding more money to the Metro project.
CONNOLLYYeah. Well, the state has committed $150 million of additional resources. As you know, the big budget battle in Richmond that required a special -- an extra session to finally resolve would have perhaps provided an additional $300 million. I'm still hopeful that, over the next -- maybe in the next session the General Assembly, we will be able to secure even more state participation, which is embarrassingly low in this project. You know, when we built the original Metro, there was 80 percent federal money to construct it.
CONNOLLYIf the federal government's posture does not change for phase one and phase two, the total federal participation is going to be something like 16 percent. So the burden unduly falls on local governments and the state government and the airport authority, frankly, to finance an extension for the whole national capital. And, you know, there's something really wrong with this picture that so much of the burden falls in the locals and the state, and that the federal participation is so low.
FISHEROne of the arguments that the opponents in Loudoun County make -- and I should note that the Loudoun supervisors who are raising these questions declined our request to come on the program. But they and their supporters say that the studies of traffic show that the extension of Metro through Western Fairfax and into Loudoun County would actually add a good deal of traffic to some of the side roads and residential areas that abut the Metro line. Is that a reason to be cautious about moving forward?
CONNOLLYI would be very skeptical of such studies. I certainly haven't seen such studies. We know -- but -- well, A, that can be a consideration if true, obviously. But the long -- the bigger consideration is, do you want to be integrated into the Metro region or not? Do you want to participate in the second most successful corridor, economic corridor, in the region right now, the Dulles Corridor, which has more jobs than any other part of the region, except the core in Washington itself?
CONNOLLYAnd it's growing. And there's no -- there's not an accident, for example, that we've had five Fortune 500 companies relocate their corporate headquarters to this corridor.
FISHERAnd do you believe -- your colleague Frank Wolf has suggested that there ought to be a full-time inspector general watching over the Airports Authority as they build the Silver Line of Metro. Is that kind of oversight necessary? And is there enough suspicion of poorly spent money that would justify that?
CONNOLLYYou know, when I was a chairman of Fairfax County, I expressed a lot of concern about the accountability of MWAA, the airport's authority board, because it's kind of a jerry-built mechanism in terms of governance. It's no -- you know, elective political officials are not really on the board. The governor of Virginia, the governor of Maryland, the mayor of D.C., the president of the United States all get to appoint people.
CONNOLLYAnd so a whole bunch of people are making decisions, for example, about toll rates in Virginia, who don't live in Virginia, don't come from Virginia. And I think that's problematic. So I welcome Frank's suggestion. I think an inspector general would be a good thing. And I would the hope the Airports Authority would welcome it just like most federal agencies do.
SHERWOODWhat about the union labor issues?
CONNOLLYYou know, I think, Tom, this is a bit of a red herring. When the Republicans captured Richmond, they made this part of their theology, even though if you look at the history of project labor agreements, they actually are a management tool much more than they are a labor tool. PLAs were started in World War I during the Woodrow Wilson administration to ensure labor peace and a lack of disruption on industrial production lines to ensure unfettered flow of supplies to the war effort.
SHERWOODYou're talking about project labor agreement, PLAs, right?
CONNOLLYProject labor agreements, that's right. We had a project labor agreement, and we still do. In phase one, it's worked fine, and, as a matter of fact, that's going to come in on budget and on time. And people are going to be riding that in about a year. So there's no reason not to have a similar agreement for phase two. I believe that issue is not an insurmountable problem unless people want to make this a theological fight.
FISHERYou're listening to "The Politics Hour." I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And Tom Sherwood is with us. He's an NBC 4 reporter and columnist for The Current Newspapers. We're talking with Congressman Gerry Connolly of Northern Virginia. And Nick in Winchester is with us. Nick, you're on the air.
NICKThank you, Marc. I'd like to propose something radical. How about the federal department negotiating with the state of Virginia and saying, OK, you don't want to fund the extension to Dulles? Fine. We will fund it, but we will decrease other allocations to Virginia.
FISHERIs there a form of hardball that can be played here?
NICKThat's what I'm asking.
FISHERRight. Congressman, let's see.
NICKWell, I just wanted to cite one precedent, and that's the nationwide standard that people have to be 21 years old to drink.
NICKPersonally, I'm very much opposed to that 'cause if you're going to go -- if you're going to fight for your country, you ought to be able to take a drink. But that was something that the Reagan government managed to push through.
NICKI, frankly, think the federal government could do it.
FISHERCongressman Connolly, is there some additional leverage here?
CONNOLLYWell, I don't think people should be drinking and riding Metro, but...
SHERWOODSeatbelts would be a better example of federal -- of holding back federal funds based on seatbelt laws.
CONNOLLYYou know what? I think you draw a lot more flies to honey than you do to vinegar. I think Secretary Ray LaHood, the secretary of transportation in the Obama cabinet, has done a very good job of trying to bring the parties together. I was part of that team that was very successful in bringing down the cost of the program and identifying savings and effectuating them.
CONNOLLYAnd I have every confidence Secretary LaHood can try to bring together these parties successfully to resolve this issue as well. I don't know that any purpose is served by threatening anybody. I think we need to exhort and persuade our partners in Loudoun and in Richmond and Fairfax and federal government to try to really redouble their efforts to make this work.
SHERWOODCongressman, you -- let's talk bipartisan. Frank Wolf has been an advocate for a lot of things. Where are you and he on this? You're both from opposite parties, bipartisan, but how are you guys working together on this?
CONNOLLYFrank -- when I was chairman of Fairfax County, you know, in my 18 years in public life, I've made rail to Dulles my top priority. I think it's that critical for the region, not just for Virginia. And Frank has been an unwavering partner in that effort and an advocate for this project. Without Frank and Sen. John Warner during the Bush years, this project probably would've died. So, you know, Frank's been a great partner. It's an honor to serve with him. And I think he's been very helpful in trying to keep this project on track.
FISHERYou can join our conversation with Congressman Gerry Connolly by calling 1-800-433-8850, or make a comment on our website, kojoshow.org. And Congressman, The Washington Post this morning released its poll of Virginia voters looking ahead to the presidential election with President Obama holding a seven-point lead over Mitt Romney. Interestingly, the president's lead is just -- is exactly the same spread as he had over John McCain in the actual vote in 2008.
FISHEROne big difference, however, is that in this poll of this year's voters, women are supporting President Obama over Mitt Romney in Virginia by a much wider margin than the president won in his campaign against John McCain four years ago. It's obviously early, but do you see the president holding Virginia?
CONNOLLYI do. And, by the way, this is not a fluke, this poll. This is the third poll in two months in which President Obama has an eight- or seven-point lead in Virginia. There was a Quinnipiac poll last month. There was a PPP poll earlier, just last week, and now we have The Washington Post poll, all of them with the same margin. I think the president is fairly strong in Virginia, and I -- and you correctly cite, Marc, the role of women.
CONNOLLYPart of that may be that the actions in Richmond became, if you will, the epicenter of the national debate on women's reproductive health, following the disastrous hearing Darrel Issa had in my committee, oversight and government reform, where he refused to allow any women on a panel of five men to talk about women's reproductive rights. That really boomeranged across the country.
CONNOLLYAnd because of the whole debate about requiring an un-indicated medical procedure being forced on women, who opt for their constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, with the transvaginal probe issue, I think that really did damage to the Republican brand. I think it did damage to Gov. McDonnell's chances of being on a national ticket. And I think it absolutely has helped cement President Obama's lead.
FISHEROn the other hand, there is significant evidence in this poll that people in Virginia are not too thrilled with the president's performance on the economy. They are open to other ideas, and...
FISHER...they're not -- health care is not really a big issue for them. Either way, there's not very strong opposition or support for the president's health care initiative. And there's also some weakness. The president's approval in Virginia is well below that of Sen. Warner. It's below that of Gov. McDonnell as well. So Virginians continue to be quite independent and open to ticket splitting.
CONNOLLYWell, Marc, you know, those are all good points if you're looking for potential weaknesses that could be exploited, and maybe the Romney camp will do that. But, actually, I take the opposite point of view. I've lived and worked in Virginia for over 40 years. I've been in public life for 18 and engaged civically for over 30. I pinch myself every morning thinking we're ahead in Virginia again.
CONNOLLYWe went 40 years without winning Virginia and not even being in play. So the fact that the president, despite, you know, a less than robust economic recovery and despite controversies like health care reform, actually, bests his Republican opponent and does so consistently in the last several months -- and as you point out, the poll results are virtually the same as they were a year ago -- I think, is a profound statement. And I don't think any potential weakness ought to cloud that pretty important fact.
SHERWOODIs it a demographic change that you're seeing in Northern Virginia playing the big role in that? Is the state really a purple state, moved beyond red or blue state? Is it truly purple at this point in your mind?
CONNOLLYAbsolutely. We -- you know, when I first -- I'll take Fairfax County, which is the largest jurisdiction in the state of which I was chairman. One out of seven Virginians lives in Fairfax County. And the fact that Fairfax County has gone from kind of a reliably moderate Republican county to a kind of reliably moderate Democratic county, I think, you know, it's a huge change and absolutely perforce puts Virginia in a competitive column in every national election. And I think you're going to -- you know, you saw that four years ago, and you're going to see it again this year.
FISHERAnd can you talk about this phenomenon we've seen in Virginia in recent elections of ticket splitting where people vote for a Democrat for president and a Republican for Senate or the other way around? Do you think we're going to see that kind of behavior this fall in the race between Tim Kaine and George Allen for the Senate? Is there an interaction between the presidential and senate races that could lead folks to say, well, you know, a pox on all these guys' houses, I'm going to split my vote so as to sort of maintain this sense of equilibrium?
CONNOLLYWell, you know, Virginians are ticket splitters and are kind of thoughtful voters. I think what the polling shows, with respect to the Senate race, is that both candidates have a very firm base of support, and that hasn't changed. And so they're going to be fighting for a very narrow band of undecided or swing voters.
CONNOLLYWhat is interesting to me that has not been commented upon is, given Obama's strength in Virginia, the conventional Republican wisdom about Tim Kaine's ties to Obama and his administration politically were going to be a big liability going into this fall. Actually, what the polls suggests today is it's an asset.
SHERWOODWell, today, the jobs report was pretty mediocre. And, of course, the national election depends a lot on what the economy is doing. How -- Virginia is doing pretty well, though, isn't it?
CONNOLLYVirginia is doing far better than the national average. The recession was less steep. The recovery was faster and more robust. And our unemployment rate is significantly below the national average of 8.1 percent. One of the reasons for that, though -- and Republicans don't like to talk about this -- is, frankly, because of the presence of the federal government in direct employment and in contracting.
CONNOLLYThe federal government has a very substantial footprint on the Virginia economy, especially here in Northern Virginia and in the tidewater area. And it accounts for a lot of that economic success, and that's why that, you know, federal partnership is so critical to the future of Virginia's economy.
FISHERMark in Arlington has a question for Congressman Gerry Connolly. Mark, it's your turn. Mark, are you there?
MARKYeah. Hi, Gerry.
MARKI was just calling to see what your thoughts on the rate increases for student loan interest rates that are planned for July 1 and then what you're planning on doing to make -- to ensure that that doesn't happen and ensure that the Republicans don't use this as, like, as a -- don't politicize the issue.
CONNOLLYYou know, I find this a really interesting political issue because the president and a number of us in Congress identified this early, that, hey, if we don't take any action, student loan interest rates in this country are going to double, from 3.4 percent currently, to 6.8 percent by July 1. We have to do something to make sure that doesn't happen. The Republicans in Congress not only opposed doing anything, but in the Ryan budget, which they approved on a party-line vote, it actually calls for that increase happening.
CONNOLLYWhat was very interesting is once the president made this a big issue in campaigning around the country, Mitt Romney put up the white flag and said, I don't want to see that happen either, we have to do something about it, really undermining the position of House Republicans. So the House Republicans finally put together a bill to address the student loan issue, but they put in that bill a poison pill that would have defunded preventive health screenings, especially for women with respect to cervical cancer, breast cancer and the like.
CONNOLLYAnd, of course, that bill passed on a party-line vote in the House with Democrats opposing it, and some Republicans as well, because that poison pill simply is unacceptable. That's a false choice we're not willing to make, and we're not going to be baited into that trap. I'm confident that we're going to revisit this issue. I've co-sponsored legislation, clean legislation to address it. The Senate certainly has a thoughtful position on this.
CONNOLLYAnd I think, at the end of the day, we'll probably resolve it before July 1. I certainly hope so because it's going to have an enormous impact on every middle class family that has a son or daughter in college.
FISHERCongressman Connolly, you obviously represent a good number of federal employees in the 11th district of Virginia. The scandal at the General Services Administration some weeks back obviously doesn't taint all federal workers, but does it surprise you that people at that level of the government would engage in that behavior, given all of the fiscal austerity and budget cutting that we've seen in recent years?
CONNOLLYYou know, during the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy opined that he was very worried about an accident with respect to his orders, a very strict control by him and Secretary McNamara about making sure nobody fired a shot against Russian ships as they came up to the line, the faction line. And he said, you know, there's always some dumb SOB who doesn't get the word. I think that applies here. I'm astounded that this was allowed to go on for a number of years.
CONNOLLYAnd, obviously, it has to be absolutely stopped, not tolerated, zero tolerance for this kind of thing. There's absolutely no reason why there has to be some expensive conference to motivate federal workers. I don't think it does characterize the federal workforce at all. And I do credit Martha Johnson, the outgoing administrator. She's the one who uncovered it and reported it to the inspector general, despite the fact that the inspector general had been in the agency since 2005 and this same kind of parting occurred on the watch at that time.
CONNOLLYHe has 300 employees, but he didn't uncover it. Martha Johnson did. She fired her two deputies. She put a number of other people in suspension pending investigation. And she took the fall, which is a very rare event in Washington. She resigned.
SHERWOODI was surprised that Bob Peck, who had been the president -- the head of the board of Greater Washington Board of Trade, has -- maybe still has a very good reputation about knowing what to do with government properties and how to parcel them out, that he got caught up in this. I know you've worked with him in the past. What was your own thought about Bob Peck's role in this?
CONNOLLYI'm very sad because I think Bob is a solid professional, did a lot of good work at the GSA at a previous tour, and I think he -- you know, he was in sort of the line of fire in terms of management. And Martha Johnson felt very strongly that anyone in that line of management, including herself, had to take the ultimate responsibility.
SHERWOODWhat about -- while we're talking about misbehavior, what -- your own thoughts of -- what have you been telling your constituents about the Secret Service embarrassment with the prostitutes?
CONNOLLYAgain, zero tolerance, not acceptable behavior ever. It's not OK to go overseas and feel the rules no longer apply. We want to make sure in Congress that the president's security was in no way, shape, or form, you know, compromised or could have been. It's hard to imagine that some piece of it wasn't at risk. You're also in a country, Colombia, where, you know, they're just coming out of, in the last few years, a situation where narcoterrorists had wide sway, including in Cartagena.
CONNOLLYAnd so the complications are great, and the behavior, just egregious. And so I think everybody involved needs to leave. And I think enforcement of existing policies needs to be significantly strengthened.
FISHERGerry Connolly is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives representing Northern Virginia's 11th district. He's a Democrat. Thanks so much for joining us.
CONNOLLYMy great pleasure.
FISHERGreat to be with you. And, Tom Sherwood, we -- in the remaining seconds, we should note that the campaign to replace Harry Thomas, the special election in Ward 5, is coming up in May 15. Any signs of life there?
SHERWOODYes, there are. There's, I think, 11 candidates on the ballot. I would point out to people the election is on May 15. But I believe early voting starts on Saturday, so people can vote. And people in Ward 5 really need -- everyone there needs to step up and move beyond the Harry Thomas embarrassment.
FISHERAnd we don't have time left to name all 11 of the candidates. But are there any who stand out as the leaders at this point?
FISHERWell, I can't -- there's no kind of polling. And I was out riding around in the ward looking at the campaign signs, but I don't think that's a fair measure of it. So I don't think it would be fair to name one or two names without naming all 11. And I personally can't do that.
FISHERWell, I could, but, instead, we're going to say that "The Politics Hour" is produced by Michael Martinez, Brendan Sweeney, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Tayla Burney. Diane Vogel is the managing producer. The engineer today is Jonathan Cherry. Natalie Yuravlivker is the -- is on the phones for us. Podcasts of all shows, transcripts, audio archives and CDs are available at our website, kojoshow.org. And I do thank you for listening. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He is an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. I'm...
SHERWOODGo Caps, go Nats.
FISHERExactly. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks for listening.
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