What happens when government aid doesn't go where it's supposed to?
A former D.C. Council member pleads guilty to taking bribes while in office. Virginia Democrats choose their candidates for this fall’s big races. And Montgomery County’s executive throws his hat in the ring for a third term. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
- David Catania Member, D.C. Council (I-At Large), Chairman, Committee on Education
- Ronald Machen Jr. United States Attorney for the District of Columbia.
- Tom Sherwood Resident Analyst; NBC 4 reporter; and Columnist for the Current Newspapers
Featured Video Clip
U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Ronald Machen talks about the latest prosecution of a city lawmaker for illegal activity, former D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown, who pleaded guilty this week to a bribery charge. “Nothing really surprises you in this job anymore,” Machen said, adding that the case is “disappointing” and “concerning.”
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MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Politics Hour," starring Tom Sherwood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Later in the broadcast, we'll be joined by D.C. Councilmember David Catania, but first up in this broadcast is U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia Ronald Machen. So if you'd like to join the conversation with him, if you have comments or questions, start calling now at 800-433-8850 or sending email to email@example.com.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIYou can send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Ronald Machen, as we said, is the U.S. -- United States attorney for the District of Columbia. Thank you for joining us in studio.
U.S. ATTY. RONALD MACHEN JR.Thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDITom Sherwood and I have a little business to take care of first. He is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. Hi, Tom.
MR. TOM SHERWOODHello.
NNAMDIVirginia primary results. In the Democratic primary, Virginia Democrats turned out. They nominated Ralph Northam for lieutenant governor, Mark Herring for attorney general Tuesday. We all know, of course, that their gubernatorial candidate is Terry McAuliffe. Any surprises there?
SHERWOODI don't think there's a surprise. I think we've had a classic political campaign in front of us. It was the right of center Republicans are going to talk about the tax and spend liberal Democrats and the right of -- left of center but still pretty much in the center for all of them, Democrats, they don't talk about the Tea Party Republicans who are moist in social issues rather than governing. And we're gonna hear this played out over and over and over and over until November.
NNAMDIWhich is why you don't want to go back to covering Richmond again.
SHERWOODI like, you know, I think it's really interesting, you know, when Tom Davis has been here and he talks about how the Democrats run up a 200,000-plus majority in the Northern Virginia area, and the Republicans have to pick that up somewhere else. You know, they've got several other candidates, and they'll have Northern Virginia ties. It's -- I just -- it's gonna be an interesting campaign, but I would like to hear some new rhetoric, and I'm not hearing it yet.
NNAMDIAs I said, our guest is Ronald Machen, United States attorney for the District of Columbia. We're talking your calls at 800-433-8850. Ronald Machen, the latest news is that Lee Calhoun, a former employee of Jeffrey Thompson's company Thompson, Cobb, Bazillio and Associates, is being accused by federal prosecutors of, well, campaign corruption. He -- this, for me, is important in particular because we've been hearing a lot about Mr. Thompson and Chartered Health.
NNAMDIHowever, today's report says that Lee Calhoun is among numerous employees, a former Thompson, Cobb, Bazillio and Associates, who donated to political candidates often via checks written on the same day. Does that mean there are likely to be more prosecutions of attorney -- of employees of that company?
JR.You know, start off with a question that I can't answer. It's an ongoing investigation, Kojo, so there's really not much I can say about it. But the court documents will speak for themselves.
SHERWOODAnd that Mr. Calhoun will be -- you've just -- not say it. The information is the legal term.
JR.That's right. That's right.
SHERWOODAnd he'll be in court next Wednesday or Thursday, I believe it is.
JR.Next Thursday, I believe.
SHERWOODAnd just in the Michael Brown case when you did the same thing, your office essentially announces that something -- something that's happened. There's going to be some court action. Then you have to wait for the judge to act before you can publicly comment on it.
JR.We usually, you know, normally what happens -- I'm not speaking specifically with this case. But normally, when we file that information, they will then be a hearing, and a plea will happen at that hearing.
SHERWOODAnd Mr. Calhoun's lawyer has said publicly, of course, to the other reporters that he will in fact plead guilty next week. So we're not gonna worry too much about that. I think what's interesting is for people -- as your -- your office has really never commented on Jeffrey Thompson directly himself anyway. You've talked only about a scheme without naming names of massive proportions that's lasted for longer than a decade of fraudulent straw men money going into campaigns both local and national. Do you still maintain that's what you're doing now? Is that still how you would characterize this? This is a massive scheme without naming names?
JR.It seems broader.
SHERWOODI think -- pardon me for interrupting you. It seems to me that people are wondering, well, why hadn't he gotten the mayor? If the mayor did something wrong, why hadn't he gotten the mayor? But it seems to me this is a very broad-based scheme that you're trying to connect the dots to.
JR.You know, I mean -- and I always want to be very careful not to name names or say anything that could be related to any particular case because I think that's very important. I can tell you generally when you start investigations into conduct, a lot of times, it will take you in different directions. And our job is to assess all the facts after looking at everything, and all those who are culpable, accountable and that's what we're doing in each one of our cases.
NNAMDII guess I'll ask a general question because the news earlier in the week was former Councilmember Michael A. Brown admitting to being bought off while he was in office by men who turned out to be undercover agents. What's less clear is the original impetus for the investigation. At what point was it decided to approach Brown with the undercover agents, and what cause did you have at the time to believe he was corruptible? And I guess if I was to make that a general question, what causes you to go after somebody who you think might be corruptible?
JR.Well, we've got to have a predicate. We don't just target individuals without a reason, and I talked about this at a press conference. With respect to Mr. Brown, we had gotten word that that he was open to receiving money in exchange for what -- exerting political influence. And we had also gotten word that contractors were concerned. They were concerned that if they didn't pay the money, they wouldn't get a fair shake at contracts, but if they did, they'll be involved in a bribe scheme. So when you're faced with that sort of circumstance, you have to act, and together with the FBI, we did.
NNAMDIIt seems like you have a lot of opportunities to bring in this case. According to the documents made public this week, Brown started taking money from your undercover agents. Pretty quickly, he ended up taking several payments, and your office waited for months to move. What factors do you weigh while you're waiting? I personally would have arrested him after the first time.
JR.Well, you know, you do that and then, you know, the case isn't as strong for whatever reason, and then you don't get a conviction. I mean, one of the things that I've been really proud of in all of these cases is we build cases that have been pretty strong, and individuals have plead guilty. We've saved the taxpayers years and years of litigation. I mean, obviously, the elected officials should get a -- some credit for that because they have accepted the responsible -- to -- decided to accept responsibility early.
JR.But that is, in large part, also a reflection of the strength of the case. And so we're very mindful of the political dynamics that are going on in each individual situation. But at the same time, we can't move prematurely before we have enough evidence to go forward, and we try to build strong cases.
SHERWOODAnd if someone -- now that Michael Brown has plead, I guess we can talk more directly about him. If he accepts money early on in the first part of the sting, it would be -- it seems to me premature to cut that off 'cause you want to know not only what he's doing at that moment, but what other things he might tell you when his guard is not up. But I am astonished that...
JR.Yeah. Well, that, and you wanna know if other individuals are involved, Tom. We didn't know that initially.
SHERWOODRight. In other words, who else -- how big is it?
SHERWOODWhat I -- astonishes me as a citizen of the city is to sit home and see that in the midst of the Kwame Brown thing last year -- when you were almost fulminating about public corruption and misdeeds and malfeasance, and all these things would not be accepted, that you were spending night, days and weekends going after it -- that's when he took the money. Is there any -- I'm just stunned by that.
NNAMDIWell, I'm thinking. I'm gonna add to what Tom said. On a visceral level, what goes through your mind in situations like the most recent special election when you know what Michael A. Brown is doing, but you're watching him running for office, out in the open, talking about issues like ethics on the campaign trail when you know full well by that point that he's involved in illegal activity?
JR.Yeah. I mean, nothing really surprises you in this job anymore, and obviously we try to be very transparent about our commitment, our dedication to stamping out corruption. We try to be clear that there will be severe consequences. So I think it's disappointing. It's doubly disappointing because we do a lot of work in the community. We go to a lot of schools. We go to...
NNAMDIWe'll talk of that about you with -- with you about that a little bit later.
JR.We do a lot of that. And so when we tell these kids, many of whom are from very poor circumstances, to hold on, to stay strong, to stay on the right path, even though many times they don't have the support structure at home, then when you see somebody who is in a position of influence, who does have a lot of the benefits and has achieved in life doing something inappropriate, we just can't let that stand.
JR.And so obviously it's concerning, but we try to keep our eye on the prize and do what we think is right in the situation and build a strong case. And when we're ready to move, we try to move. If we can do so prior to having any sort of effect on elections, we'll do so. But at the end of the day, the integrity of the case we'll control.
SHERWOODMichael Brown was running for the April 23 at-large Council seat. He abruptly dropped out, citing caring for his ill mother. No one believed that at the time. I discussed it with him. I said, Michael, no one believes this. Everyone thinks you've either cut a deal with Anita Bonds for something in the future, which apparently wasn't true, or that some prosecution action is pending against you. Can you characterize when Mr. Brown knew? When did the -- when did you -- when did the money thing take place?
JR.Well, the actual takedown is when he knew, the last payment, and that was in March. Can't remember the exact date.
SHERWOODOK. About the time.
JR.But he withdrew from the race because we made it clear he was gonna be indicted if he stayed in the race. We weren't gonna let a special election. At that point, we thought we had enough evidence. We knew that no one else was involved in taking money, and we were ready to move. And so at that point, he withdrew. Again -- but that still took -- I give him credit for that. I mean, that still -- many people would not have withdrawn.
JR.Many people would have said, well, you prove it. They'd have come out with additional public statements. They'd have fought for the next two years. You had a very experienced counsel. And so just because somebody knows that they have engaged in wrongdoing, it still takes -- and I give him a lot of credit -- it takes a lot of courage when you're down, when everyone's ridiculing you, to accept responsibility.
JR.And so -- and he did that, and so did Kwame Brown, and so did Harry Thomas. So, you know, I try not to judge these individuals. We also do a lot of work in re-entry. You know, you acknowledge responsibility. You pay your debt. You need to come back. We need to make sure that we individuals can be productive members of society. But obviously we weren't gonna allow him to run in that special election.
NNAMDIMichael Brown's guilty plea comes after two of his colleagues pleaded guilty to federal crimes last year. We spoke with Councilmember Jack Evans on this broadcast last week. He said that as far as laws and regulations go, they're prosecutions are proof that the system is working. Don your headphones, please, so you can hear this.
COUNCILMEMBER JACK EVANSHe is going to pay the price. The system in many ways worked. The FBI caught him. He's going to plead guilty and, in all likelihood, will be going to jail. And to the voter's credit who elected Michael, they unelected him in his last race and threw him out of office.
COUNCILMEMBER JACK EVANSAnd so we are where we are on that, but I think we are going to have to -- again, those of us in office are gonna have to redouble our efforts now to ensure the public that we are an ethical government, that we are ethical members of the Council of the District of Columbia and other city workers, the same thing.
NNAMDIRon Machen, how would you respond to that assessment? Is it your opinion that the laws the Council has in place at the local level are adequate as far as how they pertain to ethics and campaign finance?
JR.You know, that's probably not in my lane. I would say...
NNAMDIIt's a political question.
NNAMDIIf you run for mayor, you might have to answer that question...
NNAMDIHow did I -- did I slip that in or what? But go ahead.
JR.No. I mean, look, I think the legislature has to -- we've had -- we can't ignore the fact we've had three councilmembers plead guilty in the last 18 months to federal offenses. And so I think we need to look and see and take a hard look whether the current system of laws and of the administration of contracts and things like that are set up in such a way that they have promoted or allowed this sort of behavior to take place.
JR.But that being said, you know, these cases are a reflection of these individuals. They're not a reflection of the D.C. government. They're not a reflection of the, you know, thousands of hardworking government servants. And so I don't want to cast too much of a shadow of neglecting inefficiency on the D.C. government. I think we do have to take a look at this, though. It is important. It's critical. And, you know, I think the voters need to ask hard questions of the councilmembers, and you guys will. Has enough been done?
NNAMDIToo many opportunities to abuse the system. Tom?
SHERWOODWell, you raised the word shadow first. Just let the record show. The shadow campaign. When Jeanne Clarke Harris plead guilty, another one of the -- I believe that was the time you said that the shadow campaign to help Mayor Gray get elected deceived the voters of the District of Columbia. And you're pursuing that. We are now having -- just as we had the special election when Michael Brown was in it, we now have a mayor's race. There are three announced candidates.
SHERWOODThe mayor has no said virtually anything about this investigation, and he also has not said whether he'll run again or not. How much pressure is there? I know you have to do everything that you have to do to have a case. But how much pressure is there knowing that the election clock is ticking, that there will be candidates this fall right around Thanksgiving and later collecting signatures to run in the next primary on April 1? It seems like you -- the window is tightening.
JR.Well, I think we're aware of, again, the political situation. And obviously, we'd like to be able to resolve whatever we're doing within that window. And that being said, you know, we didn't create this cloud over the city. And you got to remember what the criminal laws are intended for. They're intended to punish conduct that has gone, you know, deeply awry. I mean, this -- these are not just slight errors in judgment, things like that. This is criminal conduct.
JR.And so this office -- our office will not be panacea for all wrongdoing or all negligence by government officials. And so I think that's important to keep that in mind. And so there is pressure, but at the same time, we got to make the right decisions. You will make mistakes, and you will not do your job if you react based on public pressure and media scrutiny.
SHERWOODCan I ask a quick question? You have been trying to get access to Jeffrey Thompson's documents, and his lawyer has fought you in various courts along the way. I think the last time I checked in, the Court of Appeals had backed you basically. What is the status of that? Do you, in fact, have those -- can you -- you're looking at me like you're not gonna answer.
JR.You know I can't answer that, Tom.
SHERWOODThese are court records. These are court documents.
JR.No, I can't answer that, Tom.
SHERWOODAnd -- isn't that a court case? I mean, that's been publicly -- the appeals court has ruled one way or another?
JR.Yeah. I can't talk about any of that.
NNAMDIIt's hard to pursue corruption...
JR.And you knew that when you were asking.
SHERWOODNo. Well, I thought -- that was a court decision. The Court of Appeals...
SHERWOOD...and all that had -- that's been made public.
NNAMDIBut he's not gonna answer the question.
SHERWOOD'Cause it's an ongoing investigation. I could almost do your job.
SHERWOODI'm not answering that.
NNAMDIIt's hard to pursue corruption cases without the cooperation of people who know about what's going in those cases. Allow me to read an email that was sent to this show by Eric Payne. And for people who want to know what that story is, there's a link on our website to a New York Times article about Eric Payne. I'll read part of the email.
NNAMDIHe writes, "As you may know, a little more than five years ago, I as serving as the director of contracts for the District's Office of the Chief Financial Officer. We were in the midst of getting D.C. Council approval for the lottery. I refused. And using internal channels, reported my concerns within the Office of the Chief Financial Officer and the office -- and the D.C. attorney general.
NNAMDI"Unfortunately, my disclosures let to my demotion and termination. In the wake of burgeoning local corruption scandals, what is your message to the over 20,000 honest and hardworking D.C. employees who may have knowledge of potential wrongdoing? How might they relay this information to your office and shield themselves from retaliation? I hear from D.C. employees weekly with knowledge of improper conduct, and they're terrified at the thought of losing their jobs for speaking up." What do you say to that?
JR.Well, first of all, they do speak up. We don't disclose they're identities. We try to build cases without getting into that, and you have to speak up. You have to have the courage to make a stand and refuse to allow corruption to take place. Our office doors are always open. We've given our number on this show many times before our general number. We have intake attorneys that handle these corruption allegations, and we're gonna look into them. We're gonna look into them vigorously and aggressively.
JR.So I would say I applaud you if you have been one of those individuals that has come forward. But, really, if you want a system of government that, I think, we all want that is ethical and you know a wrong doing, then you have a duty to speak up.
SHERWOODIs -- are your actions in all of these cases prompting the kind of response you want that people are voluntarily coming in? Or do you -- are you still having to catch them?
JR.No. We have a tremendous number of people coming forward.
SHERWOODSomeone's called it the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is down there singing.
JR.We have a -- again, not everyone that is coming forward, you know, a lot of times, you may have an individual that had a -- an administrative issue, and it's more along that ilk than actual criminal conduct. So -- but we do have a lot of folks coming forward, and we always listen to them. We always try to investigate their allegations.
SHERWOODI get the feeling that -- although you said there are a lot of honest workers in the city government. I know there are 'cause I know them too, but I get the feeling we're very similar to what Prince George's County have where there is this a broad scale culture of corruption in some of the candidates of news, that people feel like they can now take that little piece on whatever level they are. And is that what you're trying to root out?
JR.Well, I want people to understand, if they engage in that sort of conduct in D.C., there are gonna be consequences. And they probably need to think about relocating because I think we've been pretty clear that that's not gonna be tolerated. But I don't want to be -- I don't want to give folks the sense that D.C. is this, you know, culture of corruption. Again, you know, what we've seen here, we've seen in other cities, and it's something that's serious.
JR.It's something that needs to be addressed. But then again, there are thousands of employees in the city government, and most of those folks are hardworking folks that do their job to the best of their ability.
SHERWOODYou've heard this before. I'll just ask it straight up 'cause people say it to me. I was outside Harry Thomas' office when the FBI was invading his -- some African-American guys in a car rode by and said, why don't you go stand outside in front of the name of the white councilmember's name? Why don't you go outside some other person -- they named another white councilmember's name?
SHERWOODEven with Michael Brown and Kwame Brown cases that have not come before and the clear path of illegality are laid out, people are saying to me, why didn't the prosecutor go after more than African-Americans? Why don't you go after some of the white politicians?
JR.I think you got to ask who's saying that to you.
SHERWOODWhich to say that you're African-American too.
JR.That's right. That's right.
SHERWOODAnd so it's a double whammy on you.
JR.But I would say you got to ask and say, who's asking? I'm in the community probably three or four times a week, and all I hear is, thank you. We appreciate you. I'm in Ward 7 and 8 a lot of times. I can't tell you how many people just say thank you for this. And so I don’t hear that. But for those that do say that and do think that, I guess I would say, you know, we prosecute conduct, not color, and we've been very clear about that.
JR.If you look at our track record, it's also inaccurate to say, we don't -- we only prosecute black politicians or black corrupt officials. One of the biggest cases -- one of the cases I'm most proud of that we've had during my tenure as a U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, federal procurement fraud case, I've talked about that case, largest procurement fraud case in our nation's history, $30 million in bribes, over a $1 billion in contracts. Fifteen people have pled guilty to bear, and they're observing various sentences.
JR.A large number of those individuals are white middle-aged men. It just hasn't gotten as much coverage for whatever reason, but it's a significant case. One of the biggest narcotic traffickers we've convicted is a guy by the name of Sitzmann. Gregory Sitzmann was trafficking hundreds of kilos of cocaine between Canada and Mexico and the United States. He is convicted. He is being sentenced later this month, actually, faces 20 years to life and a significant case. That's a white middle-aged man. So...
NNAMDITom mentioned Harry Thomas. I'd like to get back to that case for a second because it was brought to my attention yesterday that court records indicate four people provided Thomas with illegal kickbacks but only three were charged with crimes. Is that investigation, in fact, completed?
JR.Say that -- I'm sorry, Kojo, say that again.
NNAMDIFour people in the case of Harry Thomas Jr. provided him with illegal kickbacks, yet only three of those four were charged with crimes. And I'm asking, is that investigation complete?
JR.That investigation is continuing.
NNAMDIIt is continuing. OK, hold on. We got to go to the phones. Put on your headphones, please.
SHERWOODBut that question is not as good as mine.
NNAMDIAndrew in Alexandria, you better have a good question or Tom's gonna be upset. Andrew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANDREWYes, hi. If we were in April of next year, what would be on the top issues for D.C. to be addressing? I know that corruption thing is going on, but what else is going on?
JR.I think that's for you guys, isn't?
NNAMDII would think so because all politics here is local, and Tom Sherwood is the expert. Now, you got to ask a question.
SHERWOODWell, I actually take -- I thought it was kind of noozy when you said that you would not have allowed Michael Brown to go forward in that election. So I'm gonna keep that in mind in case that it applies to any other candidates. But you have the -- I think, the nation's largest U.S. attorney's office. You're deeply involved in -- we're not gonna get into this 'cause that's a whole different program -- the issues of espionage and the tracking of the media and all those things, it's just a huge office.
SHERWOODHow much is the time does -- do you personally spend on this public integrity issue in the District of Columbia? Is it just 10 percent of your time, 50 percent? Can you give us a sense of -- given all that international and national issues that you deal with in your office -- I know you've got a lot of support in your staff.
NNAMDIIt's the largest attorney's office in the country.
NNAMDIBut you, personally, you must -- you get weekly, daily briefings? Give us a sense of how you're juggling all of this?
JR.What's the priority? And it's hard to give you a sense because at times, I'll spend a tremendous amount of time on these matters. At other times, I may be on to other matters, but we've made it a priority. We have fantastic prosecutors and investigators. I think people are starting to understand that now doing these cases. We also have fantastic managers. And so, you know, I'm not involved day to day, but I am involved, you know? I do get weekly or monthly updates, and at times, I become very, very involved in discussions. So...
NNAMDIIt's my understanding you're helping to organize a youth summit that will take place at Friendship Collegiate Academy later this month. What are the issues related to public safety, youth and violence that you're hoping to talk about at the people who will attend?
JR.Well, thanks for raising that, Kojo. We -- this is our third annual youth summit, and again, one of the things that I'm most proud of is during these last four years. We have really made it a priority to try to focus on intervention and prevention in a lot of different areas. And the youth summit is just an opportunity for us to bring kids together to deal with some of the issues they're dealing with, sexual assault awareness, gangs, violence, try to influence behavior so we do not see them in the courtroom.
JR.We are -- we're very committed, and we have long history in this office of community prosecution, really having prosecutors have a strong connection to the community. And I think things like this youth summit really help to promote what a priority that is for our office. I'm really proud at the efforts we've made in that area.
SHERWOODThe city is gonna elect an attorney general, our local elect attorney general in 2014 to take office in January of 2015. Are you confident? Are you satisfied the way that law -- that office is being developed in -- so that you can work with that -- assuming you're still there -- that the U.S. attorney can work with the elected attorney general? Is that -- should it be tougher? Is it all right?
JR.Well, I got to tell you, I haven't really focused as much on that. I'm pretty busy doing my job. But I will say I have a good relationship with the attorney general right now, Irv Nathan, and I assume whoever is elected that that relationship will continue with that...
SHERWOODWould that strengthen the city's ability to fight public corruption if the attorney general is independent of the mayor?
SHERWOODIs still gonna be your office?
JR.Yeah, I think -- I don't think that's gonna really change the nature of the cases or sort of the framework that's built up now. And so I think we'll still handle those cases.
NNAMDITom, we're almost out of time, and he won't answer this question, so I'll ask you, Tom. Has Ronald Machen ever considered running for public office?
SHERWOODI would say that he's probably thought about it in the privacy of his own home, but I doubt that he's ever discussed it with anybody.
SHERWOODBecause if he discussed it with one person, then another person would know, and then I'd know, and then there will be news to it. But, I mean, you're not -- obviously, you're in the midst of the law enforcement, but had you -- did you hold office in college? Have you ever run for any kind of student body job?
JR.I have not. I have not. I...
SHERWOODIs it something you would ever consider outside of your...
JR.It's not something I'm considering now. I'm just trying to do my job to the best of my ability.
NNAMDIActually, Tom's answer was much better than yours. Ronald Machen is the United States attorney for the District of Columbia. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIThis is "The Politics Hour" with Tom Sherwood. He is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. Tom Sherwood, House Speaker John Boehner released a video this past Thursday previewing the dedication of abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass' statue next week at the Capitol Visitor Center in Emancipation Hall.
NNAMDIMr. Boehner, standing in the spot beside Emancipation Hall, this is from the report in the Washington Times where the statue will be placed, says the statue is part of the nation's effort to recognize those who fought to end slavery. The official dedication is Wednesday at 11 a.m., but there are a lot of people who would say, no, no, no. That's not the reason this statue is there because of the nation's effort to recognize those who fought to end slavery.
NNAMDIIt's a part of the nation's effort or the nation's responsibility to recognize the District of Columbia, which did not have any statues and statuary in Emancipation Hall, and Frederick Douglass, as a prominent resident of the District of Columbia, that's why he's there.
SHERWOODWell, I don't doubt that the house speaker meant every word he said, that that is the history of Frederick Douglass. But it is true that Eleanor Holmes Norton and your former colleague here Mark Plotkin and others pushed very hard for the city of Washington to be represented in the halls of Congress in terms of people who've had influence on this nation, not just the city or state from which that person may have come.
SHERWOODSo it's a two-fer, if I may say so. It's to recognize that this is a place, a real place where real Americans live. We ought to be treated properly and equally with the rest of Americans, and this is one small step on the Hill. So the speaker was correct, but he wasn't complete.
NNAMDILet's ask our next guest. Were you invited to this celebration, sir?
COUNCILMEMBER DAVID CATANIAYes.
NNAMDIYou have been invited...
NNAMDI...because he is a member of the D.C. Council. There has been some, I guess, outrage over the fact that apparently, the ANCs of the city were not invited. But it is a celebration, and I, for one, would encourage every resident of the District of Columbia to find...
SHERWOODIs it open to the public?
NNAMDIIt's not. To find a way of celebrating this event. Our guest is David Catania. He is an at-large member of the D.C. Council who holds an independent seat. He chairs the Council's committee on education. Councilmember Catania, thank you for joining us.
CATANIAThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you've got questions for David Catania in general or about education in particular. You recently proposed the seven-piece legislative package to reform the District's public education system. The issues addressed include funding, accountability, promotion, facilities, lottery, parent engagement and governance. This has all of the appearances of school reform, led by the Council specifically David Catania as opposed to the mayor. Is it?
SHERWOODWell, board of chancellor.
CATANIAKojo, I appreciate -- and Tom, I appreciate the chance to address this issue. As you may know, two years ago, I sought the committee on education. For the last six years prior to that, the issue of education had been assumed by the committee of the whole led by both the chairman of the Council. You know, many of us felt that the issues involving schools were such that we needed, you know, a particular member focused just on this issues.
CATANIAAnd therefore, it led to the creation of the committee on education, which I am privileged to chair. You know, over the last five or six months, you know, I've been on, you know, what I call the Sawdust Circuit. We are now at our -- we finished our 58th school visit, we've had 20 PTA meetings over the last 2 months, you know, mini-community meetings, et cetera. And what we learned during the course of these visits were the barriers frankly that are inhibiting the improvements in our schools.
CATANIANow, I think over the last few years, we've made a lot of progress with the mayoral takeover in 2007, you know, through increased funding, through our school modernization efforts, through our impact evaluation tools, which, while imperfect, you know, our way to evaluate teachers, et cetera. But nonetheless, we still have a good many barriers to the kind of student achievement we want. And I'd like to just mention a few.
CATANIAWe still have 41 percent dropout rate. The rate of improvement in proficiency in math and reading is averaging 1 percent a year under school reform. We currently have about 45 percent of our children who are proficient. Our state goal is 75 percent. At this pace, it'll take us to 2043 before we hit our goal. Our bottom 40 schools under school reform have seen decreased CAS scores, decreased state-wide assessments, and that's concerning.
CATANIAAnd our achievement gap is growing. There's presently 54 points that differentiates the proficiency of white students from African-American and a 40-percent proficiency between white students and Latino students. Again, we have made some progress, but to set the table, we have quite a lot of work to do.
SHERWOODSome people at the Washington Post, which generally have been very supportive of the school reform effort, cautioned that they thought you were maybe pressing too hard, noted that you had even yourself said somebody's proposals may not make it, that they may be in the course of public hearings that you intend to hold if things might change.
SHERWOODBut they -- they're worried that the Council is gonna become the school board in which what Kojo said. Is it your goal to support the school system through legislation or to radically change it?
CATANIANo, it's to build upon the successes that we've seen over the last couple of years. But again, I mentioned those statistics not to be a -- not to, you know, enunciate a parade of horribles but to basically set the table. And that's what the legislation does. What we've learned over the last several months actually informed the legislation. So for instance, you know, the District of Columbia, in our weighted student formula, does not give additional resources for students who are eligible for free and reduced meals.
CATANIAVirtually every other every other weighted student formula in the country acknowledges that it costs more money to educate poor children than affluent children, that they face different needs. And so, you know, part of the recommendation is for us to have a weighted student formula that does accommodate the four issues of poverty.
SHERWOODDoes the chancellor in all these issues -- the other issue was whether you've jumped ahead of the chancellor, that she wasn't -- while she was aware of it in part and knowing these changes, was not really truly side by side with you in helping shape these legislative proposals.
CATANIAWell, I appreciate that, Tom. But to be clear, no legislative proposal that I have been a part of or witnessed in 15 years of council work has had more engagement from the executive than this bill, period. You know, it typically, you know, legislation is drafted and then you got through a hearing process, and then you solicit the input of the executive.
CATANIAWe had separate meetings with State Board of Education members, with the charter school board, with charter school operators, with teachers, principals, the Office of the State Superintendent on Education, philanthropists, the chancellor herself, et cetera. All of the parties were at the table prior to the introduction where we actually sought to solicit their input on a host of ideas.
SHERWOODShe just seemed lukewarm when she responded to The Post or other reporters, that she didn't really -- knows that she had discussions with you but didn't really know the scope and the depth of these.
NNAMDILet me quote her. "I just don't believe that these seven proposals are going to move us to where we need to go, and we have to ask ourselves what is the role of the legislature." Your turn.
CATANIAWell, I understand that. And last Saturday, she and I spent two hours at breakfast talking over the item, and we'll be meeting next week to go over the specific proposals. The issue is when I pressed her on specifics, you know, specifics of the bill, do you support this or not, you know , almost universally, the answer is yes. Now, I don't believe, you know, we’re going to have, you know, because there are a lot of stakeholders candidly beyond the chancellor. And nearly half of our school children are in charter schools, and this bill goes to improve the accountability among charter schools as well.
CATANIASo it's not as if, you know, I have to, you know, accommodate only one person's point of view. I'm trying to construct, you know, a series of proposals that advances student achievement that takes into consideration the voices of the many stakeholders. But again, you know, there will be -- as I said, we're going to be meeting with the chancellor again this week.
CATANIAAnd we'll be meeting with her -- I've already scheduled nearly 40 hours of hearing for the first two months of July to solicit public input on these bills. But, you know, to your other point, Tom, is the Council trying to become the school board?
SHERWOODThe school board.
CATANIAEvery proposal that we have mentioned has its basis in evidence-based research and legislative action from other states, period. What we've had, we've grown accustomed, and perhaps, you know, the chancellor and her predecessor grew accustomed to a Council that had vacated the field. Having mayoral takeover does not mean Council abdication. We have a role to play in this conversation. And in fact, the mayor has produced -- he, you know, forwarded a legislation last week to give the chancellor chartering authority.
CATANIASo there's an acknowledgement that there is a role for the Council to play. And with respect to opinion formers, whether it would be The Washington Post editorial or any pundit, you know, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and this is the great thing about this country. But I want to be clear about one thing. I chair the Committee on Education, and I have four colleagues who are on that committee with me, and we work for 620,000 people. We don't work for a particular pundit or a particular page.
CATANIAAnd what we hear from the 620,000 residents of the District of Columbia is that school reform is going too slowly. We have an achievement gap that does not reflect our values, and we need a sense of urgency to try to solve these problems.
NNAMDIWe're talking with David Catania. He's an at-large member of the D.C. Council. He chairs the Council's Committee on Education. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said you did not set up a meeting with the mayor's staff ahead of time to discuss these bills before you ruled them out, and that raises what he calls troubling questions as to what your intentions are. How would you respond?
CATANIAWell, I would be happy to provide the email traffic that, you know, that illustrates what a lie that is. We actually reached out and asked for a meeting with the mayor. Again, by the way, this is something that is unprecedented prior to the introduction. We reached out in a letter to the mayor requesting that he meet with our team to discuss proposals. We asked for the meeting to take place at our law firm at Hogan Lovells. He -- every other stakeholder was able to accommodate this, seeing the sense of urgency.
CATANIAHe refused to come to Hogan, instead insisted that the meeting be held in the Wilson Building, which we were happy accommodate. The meeting had, in fact, been set up. And then we received an email saying, well, on second thought, the mayor has decided that, you know, he wants to meet one on one, and he's unwilling to meet with what he characterizes our entourage. Our entourage were the three lawyers who had been working with us, the school reform experts. And we underscore the importance of having the entire team present so we could have a comprehensive conversation.
SHERWOODSo just to be clear, the allegation or the statement that you went forward with this without consulting the mayor, the mayor's executive office is not true.
CATANIAIt is absolutely not true, and I'll be happy to give you the email traffic which shows that we went above and beyond in soliciting his point of view and seeking, you know, a meeting with him. And we're willing to go to him on his terms and conditions, and at the last minute, he decided that he only wanted to meet with me directly. And I said, look, I'm willing to meet with you.
CATANIAIn fact, we've set up a meeting for next Thursday to meet because I invited him. I said these are proposals that we have put together over many months of effort. I invite you, Mr. Mayor, to come forward with your proposals because all good ideas are welcome and all hands need to be on deck.
SHERWOODIs this your sole focus...
NNAMDINevertheless, I sense some friction between you and the mayor's office. Is that correct?
SHERWOODIs it healthy friction?
CATANIAWell, I think it is what it is. I think there is some sensitivity because, you know, candidly -- I mean, my concern isn't with our chancellor. I think she is an excellent chancellor. My concern has been with the absence of an agenda on the subject of education. The mayor has announced that next week, he will have an address on education -- coincidentally, the same day he and I are going to meet -- and he's going to have this address before we meet, which is fine.
CATANIAI welcome his ideas. But it is not lost on me that that will be his 901st day on the job as mayor, and it seems to me we ought to have had an education agenda before then.
SHERWOODYou're -- so the slippage in the reform that you've already talked about, you attribute to the mayor's office not being aggressive to help the chancellor. So they're now for your Council committees.
CATANIAThat's right. Look, I think...
SHERWOODBut you understand the mayor also worries that you want to be a -- the mayor is concerned that you could easily be a candidate against him next year. You haven't said you won't run. People talk about you possibly running in the November election next year if he's the nominee, if he runs again. So maybe he's worried politically about you, Councilmember Wells, who is an announced candidate, Councilmember Bowser, who is an announced candidate, Councilmember Evans, who is an announced candidate. Maybe he's feeling politically surrounded.
CATANIAAnd, Tom, if I might, you know, as I mentioned when I first became chairman of this committee, I wanted to make it a goal to visit every public school, and I mean both public -- traditional public and charter. As of this week, we visited our 57th and 58th school. You know, what is motivating now at this point is, you know, is accelerating student achievement and narrowing the student -- the achievement gap that exists in the city. Whether or not, you know -- and, again, I'm going to -- I'm gonna be at the mayor's announcement next Thursday.
CATANIAI have sent him a letter welcoming his proposals sooner rather than later so we can incorporate them in the hearing notices so that we can have all good ideas on the table. You know, and I believe the mayor is going to produce some good ideas, and I welcome those good ideas. But this -- but I have a sense of urgency here because I don't believe -- at our current rate of improvement, it will take us 30 years to hit 75 percent proficiency in math and reading.
NNAMDIWe seem to be annoying John -- our listener, John, in Southeast, who sent an email saying, "Could you guys please focus on the specifics of the bill and not just the politics? Thanks." Hey, John, it's The Politics Hour. Anyway, we'll concede.
CATANIACan I ask people -- They're welcome to...
NNAMDII was about to get to specifics, funding.
CATANIAThey're welcome to go to at davidcatania.com, and all the proposals in there specifically are outlined. And they can go to the site if they wanna see some graphs and some specifics.
NNAMDIWell, it does raise per-pupil funding for poor children. Can you talk about that?
CATANIAThat's right. Well, you know, one of the things we've learned along our journey is that, again, the cost of educating a poor child is different than educating in an affluent child. And when I sit and talk with principals, they talk about the need for greater mental health services and certain interventions including around the issues of literacy. And so we do back-of-the-envelope. How much more would you need? What would it look like?
CATANIAAnd we're looking at about a 10 to 15 percent addition for free and reduced meal students to give the kind of interventions and support that we think are necessary for children to succeed. But I'm also looking at having two additional ways. One additional way would be for high school juniors and seniors for a career in technical education. Because last year, you know, again, our graduation rate, 59 percent, 2,300 kids simply left the system and didn't return. And many of whom that -- many of those who did graduate obviously didn't graduate into a swim lane of opportunities.
CATANIAAnd I think we need to acknowledge that and produce opportunities for those children. And then we have a weight for our underperforming high schools because they often are, you know, challenged with intense amounts of behavioral issues and also, you know, children not on grade level, and candidly, that's an expensive proposition in additional weights. And we're not alone here. We studied about 12 other systems that had weights, and weights really do reflect the values of community.
CATANIAAnd I'll be very honest here. You know, this city has a -- it is a tale of two cities with intense poverty. There are a couple of approaches to that issue. We can continue to, you know, redistribute resources and maintain in a minimally -- in a minimal way the lives of people who are in poverty. We can actually do something about it and create a better city. And so another option to defeat poverty, right, the enemy of poverty is education and opportunity.
CATANIAIf we can actually improve our system of education, we don't have to be saddled with a population that is so -- with such a huge concentration of poverty forever.
SHERWOODBruce DePuyt on his show yesterday on NewsChannel 8...
NNAMDIWhat show is that?
NNAMDIThere's no such show.
NNAMDIThere's no such show.
SHERWOOD...will-o'-the-wisp, you know, passing thought show that...
CATANIAAfter 30 years.
SHERWOODI've almost forgotten my question. No, he said, well, maybe with this kind of this talk in general that you might run for mayor, that if you want to make these dramatic changes in the school system, if you were mayor, you could appoint a chancellor or you could direct the chancellor, Kaya Henderson, to do the very things here without even some of these -- you could go past the legislation to executive action.
SHERWOODSo what do you say to people who say, this might be a prelude to a mayoral campaign. Or -- not questioning for one second your legitimacy and your intensity of trying to get something done, where does mayoral politics fit in this?
CATANIAIt just can't be -- it can't be the first issue on our mind. What has to -- what we have to be thinking about is constructing the system that works for this chancellor or this mayor or whomever it might follow.
SHERWOODWill the mayor -- will this mayor be better off if he works with you to get the achievements which he can then run himself on rather than oppose you?
CATANIAAnd I'm open to that. Again, part of the issue that, you know, one -- in the funding bill, Kojo, in addition to having greater funding for free and reduced meal students, it also devolves autonomy and budget authority to the principals. And the bill would require, as opposed to today where 69 percent of the money is in the hands of the principals, increasing that to 80. This is along the lines of what they've done in Baltimore. It's also creating greater autonomy for the principal to decide what to do with those resources.
CATANIAAnd two jurisdictions that we've studied, both San Francisco and Oakland, saw enhanced improvements in statewide testing once principals were in control of their resources and were able to pick and choose those interventions that actually work for them. So these are evidence-based ideas.
NNAMDISpeaking of funding, we got an email from Victor, who identifies himself as a senior at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School in the District. Victor says, "With 80 percent of the funding DCPS receives from the D.C. government, if schools still aren't performing well -- presumably after some time -- if schools still aren't performing well enough, what will happen? Will that percentage begin to increase or will it decrease?"
CATANIASo right now, we don't have a local mechanism in our law that will close an underperforming, for instance, DCPS school. The charter schools have a framework to close underperforming charter schools, which this bill actually strengthens at -- and we've included the requests from the charter school board on how to strengthen it, as evidence of us actually working with partners. But with respect to DCPS, there currently is no mechanism that closes an underperforming school based on performance.
CATANIAWe close schools because kids stop going. That's the mechanism here. No Child Left Behind is currently under duress at the moment. This -- the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is stalled in Congress. Its re-authorization is stalled. And No Child Left Behind is being weakened by the left and the right. If it disappears, there will be no mechanism for us to close a school or to call to question on underperforming schools. One of the bills that we have introduced, the Individual School Accountability Act, establishes a local standard where OSSE will establish what that...
SHERWOODWhat is OSSE for people?
CATANIAThe Office of State Superintendent of Education.
CATANIAThey'll establish the standard of what is acceptable performance. Schools that failed that performance will be subject to two actions: a turnaround plan or permit the chancellor to create what we're calling innovation schools modeled after Colorado, which will give her the flexibility both with respect to labor contracts and municipal regulations to actually have charter-like authority without the board. The turnaround plans, what I like about them, we've recently gone through an effort where we reconstitute it to DCPS schools.
CATANIABut all that means is we change the personnel. We don't bring additional interventions, curriculum improvements, resources, et cetera. And we certainly...
SHERWOODTeachers' union won't like that.
CATANIAWell, actually, the teachers' union, I think, would like what we're talking about with respect to turnaround plans because right now, a school is reconstituted and all you do is you change out the personnel. You don't actually change and do a root cause analysis as to why to the school failed and build it up. You just change the people.
CATANIAAnd so what my bill does under the turnaround plan option is it requires that there'll be a stakeholder group that is school-invested, from the principal, a teacher from the school, a parent of a child in the school, et cetera, and they take the first cut at creating the turnaround plan that's submitted to the chancellor. And you have authentic community input as to what is it gonna take to turn that school around, which is very different than what happens now. Look, we have got to build bridges back to our citizens so they feel invested in their public schools.
NNAMDIWhy did you ultimately feel it was necessary to hire outside help to put together this package. You raised outside money to pay lawyers from Hogan to help craft your plan. We got an email from Crystal, who writes, "Why are lawyers considered education experts? Why weren't teachers or parents with children in public school part of David Catania's education entourage?"
SHERWOODAnd how much did that cost?
CATANIAWell, that's an excellent question and so let me explain. Becoming chairman of the Committee on Education after eight years chairing the health committee, I didn't have the depth of a binge with respect to educational expertise. And the way I divide my five staff members: I have one who's dedicated to data and research, one community outreach, one content expert, one budget and then one who handles some administrative functions. I didn't have the binge.
CATANIAAnd so we interviewed what we thought to be among the best practice groups in the country who are steep in school reform. And so we chose Hogan and Hart -- Hogan Lovells. The woman who represents us was herself a former teacher and principal. She was the first female principal of the Montgomery County school system. She's been in this business for 30 years. She represents such systems like Baltimore. She represents Clark County. She represents New Orleans.
CATANIAShe represents other systems that are in the process of evolution. Other members of the team are also teachers. The lead associate is currently a PhD student at Harvard in education, having a master's, having taught in schools. And so these individuals do actually have educational backgrounds. But let me be clear, the solutions -- the problems which I brought to the table for us to help solve were those which we learned through our school visits.
CATANIAAnd, by the way, my staff was embedded in this process. We shared the research. We shared the work. And ultimately, we're responsible for draft so you got...
NNAMDIWe're in the last two minutes. Here's Tom Sherwood.
SHERWOODI got to ask you this before we go. We had Ronald Machen here, the U.S. attorney. We've had three councilmembers in 18 months resign and pleading to felonies, different ones. And the mayor is still under investigation. Last year, you called -- I think it was last year -- you called for the mayor to resign, Mayor Gray to resign, that he was distracted by the -- these campaign issues and that he was detriment to the city staying in the job. Two other councilmembers joined you in doing that. Where do you stand now about the mayor? Do you still think he should have resigned?
SHERWOODAnd how do you just feel about this cloud of corruption that does hang over the city?
NNAMDIAnd you only have about 40 seconds.
SHERWOODYou do still think he should resign.
CATANIA...I stand by comments I made last year. There is no way under God's green Earth that you can run a shadow campaign in, you know, in essentially the same building as a legitimate campaign right next door in a conjoined building where $700,000 of illegal conduct happened and the mayor not know. So he either knew or should have known.
CATANIABut in any -- regardless, I think he would have done the city a great service had he step down last year so that we could move on and get about the business of solving people's problems 'cause that's what we're elected to do. It's not, you know, trying to stay out of jail.
NNAMDIDavid Catania, he is an at-large member of the D.C. Council. He chairs the Council's Committee on Education. David Catania, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDITom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. Tom, go back to work.
SHERWOODNo. I'm going back on vacation until Monday.
NNAMDIWell, this is a weekend. You don't normally work on weekends anyway.
SHERWOODI work 24/7.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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