Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich is running for County Executive with public financing and plans to take on developers. Kim R. Ford is challenging fourteen-term Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton for her seat. We talk to both of them about their campaigns and look at the biggest political news of the week.
Sky-high salaries for political friends. Fully-loaded SUVs. Questions about overseas travel. Several top District politicians are facing tough questions about their spending and hiring decisions. We’ll talk about the impact of these controversies and their potential impact on the city’s relationship with Congress. And then, it’s Your Turn to discuss the latest stories from around your neighborhood or across the globe.
- Mike DeBonis Reporter, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. It's "Your Turn." What do you think D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, City Council Chairman Kwame Brown and the city council need to be doing in order to overcome the scandals of the last two weeks in order to make them go away? You can call us at 800-433-8850 with your opinion or suggestions. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Luxury SUVs, sky-high salaries, $8,000 plane tickers, is this the lifestyle of a Wall Street mogul? Nope, just everyday amenities for some of D.C.'s top leaders.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThese perks of the job have created some unpleasant headlines in recent days for the District's mayor, its council chairman and the leader of its public university. For many long-time District residents, this all rings familiar. So what's a new mayor to do? Joining us by telephone is Mike DeBonis, reporter for The Washington Post. Mike DeBonis, thank you very much for joining us.
MR. MIKE DEBONISThanks, Kojo. Always a pleasure.
NNAMDIMike, let's start with Mayor Vincent Gray. In his first two months in office, we've learned that Mayor Gray has been paying his staffers, some of them, far more than his predecessor Adrian Fenty. He's loaded his staff -- well, put on his staff a lot of politically connected insiders or put on the city payroll a lot of politically connected insiders both on his staff and a few other agencies. The mayor campaigned on promises of integrity and transparency, what happened?
DEBONISWhat happened, well, we're not really sure. Well, he's clearly had some problems with vetting his appointees. And more than that, he's had problems with living up to the standard that he set during the campaign. With regard to the former, you know, Washington City Paper reported on two people who were appointed to high positions in the Department of Health Care Finance that had questionable issues in their backgrounds, specifically for gentleman Sulaimon Brown who was well known to many of the reporters as a minor mayoral candidate.
NNAMDIAnd who's well-known to everybody now.
DEBONISNow, he's well-known to everybody because he was given this $110,000 city job, but, you know, there were some issues in his background. He had an arrest. He had some -- a stay away order, things like that. And it appears that they weren't aware of them, or perhaps they were aware of them and they chose not to heed those warning signs. And now, we hear about that Talib Karim, who was a...
NNAMDII saw that in your column and you said it was Alan Suderman, Loose Lips of City Paper, who broke that story?
DEBONISRight. You know, Talib Karim, well, was also a figure in the campaign. He was a supporter of Gray. His brother is a figure in this investigation of...
DEBONISOmar Karim, who's a figure on the investigation of these controversial parks contracts. And he too had a domestic issue in his past where he was -- there was a restraining order that a judge sustained. So these are things that if you're the mayor and it's two to three months after you've been inaugurated, these are not the things you wanna be dealing with. These are the -- you know, you wanna have -- be focused on your agenda and you wanna be focused on what you're doing.
DEBONISAnd part of the problem for Vince Gray and something that my colleague, Bob McCartney, point out in his column today is that Vince Gray doesn't really have an agenda so far as we know. You know, he hasn't, you know, his first few months of office, he hasn't really put a lot of his political capital and his political energy behind any particular effort other than to say, well, we have a lot of budget cutting to do. And he's, you know, to talk about the need to generate jobs without actually doing a whole lot about it. So...
NNAMDISo is that the way he gets his administration back on track? Does he now reveal an agenda that can help to overcome the scandals of the past couple of weeks?
DEBONISWell, that would be one way to do it. I don't know that he's prepared to do that. And one of the things is that the next month, he has to deliver a budget on April 1st. And, you know, his administration is very much focused on balancing that budget. You know, we now know that the official figure is $322 million that needs to be -- that that's the problem that needs to be figured out. And, you know, his administration is pretty preoccupied with figuring out how to do that and managing the politics of that, which isn't easy.
DEBONISSo, you know, my point is if he had an agenda, if he had things that he wanted to do he -- they should have been laid on the table by now because now he's going to be tasked with this whole budget situation that's gonna be very hard, that's gonna suck up a lot of the political oxygen.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Mike DeBonis, he is a reporter for The Washington Post about how D.C. might overcome some of its recent scandals. But it's really your turn. We'd like to hear your opinion about what needs to be done. 800-433-8850 or you can send us a tweet @kojoshow. Mike, onto Council Chairman Kwame Brown. Reports about his fully loaded Lincoln Navigator surfaced two weeks ago. The chairman had the city replace its taxpayer-funded Navigator with another because he doesn’t like the interior color. How did this kind of story, how does this kind of story play with District voters?
DEBONISI've been -- I'm not shocked, but I'm surprised that, I mean, that there has been uniformly negative reaction towards Kwame Brown. Knowing (unintelligible) no -- it has been indefensible in a way that even I didn't think that it would be indefensible. People -- this has really touched a nerve with people who were just upset, you know, given all this talk of budget cutting, given all this talk of the need to cut back in certain ways that a city official would be so preoccupied with his SUV, his luxury vehicle, and the fact that the city in fact ordered him two of these luxury vehicles at a rather high leasing rate.
DEBONISAnd the details of this are just -- have just been so picaresque or ridiculous, whatever you wanna call them, that they've really stuck in the minds of the readers of my newspaper and the viewers of TV news and listeners of WAMU.
NNAMDIWell, what -- if you have been getting this kind of response -- before I go the phone -- have you been hearing about what Council Chairman Brown needs to do? He says he's returning the vehicles. He has, I think, essentially apologized for his poor judgment. How does he put this behind him?
DEBONISThat's a difficult question. He needs to prove that -- prove that that he's in this for -- he's in this as a public servant for the public and not for himself. I mean, I'm not -- don't mean to imply that Kwame Brown is all about himself, but when people hear these stories about personal accoutrements and things like this, people wonder, like, well, why did this guy wanna get elected to office. Was it to get a nice car or was it to do great things for the city? And he needs to convince people that he's in this to do great things for the city. Now how does he do that? He needs to show that he's a serious guy and he's serious about improving the city and improving the city council.
NNAMDIMaybe some of our callers have ideas. How do you think the city council chairman...
NNAMDI…can -- what do you think he can do to overcome the perception that he may be in this for himself? 800-433-8850. Here is Lissa in Washington, D.C. Lissa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LISAYes. I believe one thing that Mr. Kwame Brown should do is reimburse the $13,000 he spent as soon as he got into office to elaborately refurbish the suite of offices for the council chair at the District building. That's all. Thanks.
NNAMDIIs that likely to happen, Mike DeBonis?
DEBONISIt's still unclear. Well, Kwame Brown is committed to reimbursing the District for his use of the vehicles. What he said he won't do is that if the District can't get out of these leases, which could total upwards of $40,000, that he wouldn't eat the full cost of those. He -- you know, reimburse for the time that he used the car. Kwame Brown's position has been is that, you know, I didn't order these cars, these, you know, the Department of Public Works did this and they entered into these arrangements, and if I had known that they were so expensive then I certainly would not have had them do it.
NNAMDIAnd all of this stuff is now being investigated. Tommy Wells' committee is investigating who else we know might be investigating. And it looks right now, as if we're likely to see in the future, some form of process for approval for any city-owned or leased vehicle for any employee of the city.
DEBONISRight. Well, both the executive and legislative branches are looking at this issue. And there's a lot of things to look at, not only with this situation but the way the city handles its vehicle fleet generally. So three's gonna be a lot of attention on this and I, you know, I think there's a lot of opportunities for certainly for some of the folks on the council (unintelligible) to sort of fix this problem.
NNAMDILet's go to Joseph in Beltsville, Md. Joseph, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOSEPHYes. Thank you, Kojo. I was wondering at what point would a person be allowed to have his transgressions forgiven so far as making mistakes in his past and then being hired by the D.C. government?
NNAMDIThat's a very good question...
DEBONISThat's an excellent question.
NNAMDI...Mike DeBonis, at what point if you did something, oh, three weeks ago, five years ago, 10 years ago, 1972, at what point does it, you know, this discussion came up yesterday. We had a conversation about ex-felons returning home to the District of Columbia. A lot of people feeling that they should carry the label ex-felon for life when they would like to be considered returning citizens. But in the case of elected official, city leaders and people seeking jobs at city government, at what point should that be forgiven? And you say, look, this person has turned over a new leaf.
DEBONISI think there's a very strong argument that it should be forgiven. But the problem is that the Gray administration hasn't presented that argument. You know, when the Sulaimon Brown revelations appeared, they didn't argue well. You know, we know the guy has had some issues in his past, but he's been on the right track and he's been -- he's worked hard for us and he's done a good job, and we want him to do it. Well, that's not what happened. He was fired the next day.
NNAMDIWithout, as far as I know, a specific reason being given for his firing.
DEBONISRight. Which they don't have to give under the personnel rules.
DEBONISIt remains to be seen what's gonna happen with Mr. Karim. But, certainly, if Mayor Gray or one of his representatives were to stand up and say, listen, he had some issues with -- in his family, you know, some years ago. You know, we've all had some issues, and, you know, he's gotten past them. There were no allegations of actual physical violence or anything. We don't believe that this bears on the work we've asked him to do, and we remain confident in his ability to do the job. If they had made that argument I think that there's plenty of people in this town who accept -- would accept that move on, but we haven't heard it yet.
NNAMDIJoseph, thank you very much for your call. DeBonis, following closely on the heels of the council chairman is Allen Sessoms, president of the University of the District of Columbia, reports surfacing this week that his expense record show a pattern of first-class air travel and thousand-dollar plane tickets over the past two years. Sessoms has said that all of the trips were for university business. Is this story shaping up to be a big deal?
DEBONISThe way they've handled that story has made it into a bigger deal than it possibly could have been. WTTG, channel 5, the Fox-affiliate, broke the story earlier this week. They had asked for receipts and records of his travel, and it showed a lot of very expensive plane tickets, hotel rooms across the world -- Egypt, England, various destinations in the United States. Now, I don't think anyone would argue much that travel is part of the university president's job. You have to drum up interest in the university. You have to drum up interest among fundraisers. You need to see what the university's operations for study abroad, things like that, might look like.
DEBONISBut the way the channel 5 report was presented, UDC didn't do a very good job of defending -- didn't do any job of defending their expenses. Sessoms wouldn't appear on camera. They tried to track him down in various ways and he wouldn't do it. Spokesperson (word?) gave this quote that said, you know, I have questions, too. That certainly did nothing to tamp down the suspicion over this. Now, in the aftermath, Sessoms still hasn't talked to Fox 5, but he put out a letter to his community. He spoke to The Washington Post and said, well, listen, these were legitimate expenses. I have receipts. You know, these were university-related activities, and I -- you know, they paid only for me. They didn't pay for my family.
NNAMDIWell, in the interest of transparency, should media and public be allowed to see those receipts...
NNAMDI...the channel 5 report's claim that the recordkeeping system at the university over this issue is in complete disarray?
DEBONISThat's absolutely fair and something that UDC should have done as soon as channel 5 started asking questions, is, listen, okay, you know...
NNAMDIWhich was months ago, right?
DEBONISWhich was months ago. I -- they filed the request sometime ago. And I don't understand -- you know, as a reporter, I understand why they would, you know, give this context to everybody but the people who were first pursuing the story. So we don't know what's going on there. But the way they've handled it has certainly not done anything to diffuse this issue. And, you know, there's this, you know -- Sessoms, you know, also had -- you know, what -- you know, he has a car for the university, the same model of Lincoln Navigator that Kwame Brown requested and Vince Gray has.
DEBONISHe has a -- you know, the university -- he has use of the university-owned home. You know, there are some differences with Sessoms, you know, with regard to Gray or Brown. And, you know, he's dealing with some university politics, which is that he, you know, just in the last couple of years, he’s sought to transform the university. And part of that was a massive tuition increase for some of the students and part of the university. And certainly, those students are unhappy that they had to open up the paper, turn on the TV and watch that their university president has...
NNAMDIWhat does he need to do to overcome this situation? Transparency, transparency, transparency.
DEBONISYeah, absolutely. I think that every receipt needs to be accounted for, and he needs to explain what he did on these trips. And he needs to say, listen, you know, this is what the university got in return for these trips.
NNAMDIHere's the telephones again. Adelaide (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Adelaide, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ADLEDHello. I was a contractor during the shutdown and a lawyer. And I had cases in court, and I just proceeded with them as if, you know -- the only difference was when I wanted advice from the council -- general council's office in the agency, I call up and there was one person working who was a lawyer, who was harassed out of his mind on top of not being paid. And so I must say I use my good, you know, my judgment. And afterwards, when I billed for the cases, I got paid. No big deal for me…
NNAMDIAt least for you...
ADLED...but big deal for the poor guy working in the office.
NNAMDII think so. This goes back, Mike, to our previous conversation about what happens during a government shutdown.
NNAMDIAdelaide sharing her experience. Adelaide, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Eric in Alexandria, Va. Eric, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERICNumber one, two things. In terms of the government, the possibility of a government shutdown, I think a lot of the issues with the lackadaisical attitude towards the public, once you step away from the beltway, there is a disconnect between the federal government -- what it does and the service it provides -- and the people. Things get much more regional. They become localized with your state, your county, your particular town, village, city, whatever.
ERICSo they don't see the federal government in the same light as we do where we are highly employed by the federal government.
NNAMDIBut, you know, 85 percent of federal employees work outside of that -- this area, but, of course, they're spread all over the country. This does have the largest concentration. Your other comment?
ERICAnd the other comment is -- concerns Vincent Gray. We have been going, you know -- I haven't lived in the District of Columbia for over 30 years. But we seem to be going -- there's always something going on with District Columbia politics, and mainly because there is an entrenched culture of nepotism, cronyism. I don't know -- corruption. And it just gets passed on from one generation to the next. And Vincent Gray has proven, from the jumpstart, you know, they won on the -- got off on the first foot, and the first thing that comes out of it is...
NNAMDII don't know, Mike DeBonis, how entrenched it is after the situation in Prince George's County. We talked about a culture of corruption in Prince George's County. I don't know how the District compares to places like Chicago and New Orleans for having that kind of entrenched culture. But there certainly is that perception out there. And I guess we began this broadcast the way I'd like to end it, talking about what can be done to remove that perception.
DEBONISRight. Well, the -- what we're talking about in Prince George's and what we're talking about here with Vincent Gray are different things. You know, corruption and, you know, of the type that has been alleged in Prince George's is not the same as the patronage type of politics that, you know, is -- we're talking about with Vincent Gray.
DEBONISThat said, you know, the people want to make sure that there are qualified people being hired for reasonable salaries in their government. And the more that Vincent Gray or any councilmember, any elected official, can say, listen, I'm giving the taxpayers good value for their money.
NNAMDIHey, we only got 30 seconds left. I have to share this with you...
NNAMDI...from Lisa Swanson in Ward 4 for Kwame Brown. "Starting today, get yourself one of those quaint wallet-sized smart trip cards that we all carry, use it on the bus and rail. Step 2, get a special access key for Capital Bikeshare. There's an underused station near your house. Pedal yourself across the bridge near that monumental baseball stadium we all own, past the Verizon Center to which we all have a ticket but cannot use. Drop the bike off at another station and ride by bus or rail to your office and all important meetings." Mike DeBonis, thank you very much for joining us.
DEBONISGood advice. Thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIMike DeBonis is a reporter for The Washington Post. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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