Eleanor Holmes Norton & openly gay City Council member David Catania speak with Kwame Brown. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)
LGBT activists joined fellow D.C. residents in expressing sadness and anger over an ongoing city corruption investigation that led to the resignation Wednesday night of D.C. Council Chair Kwame Brown (D-At-Large).
Brown’s resignation came hours after federal prosecutors charged him with committing felony bank fraud. Sources familiar with the case said he was expected to plead guilty to the charge at a hearing scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
An atmosphere of tension and uncertainty within the city government over Brown’s predicament intensified when gay D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large) called on Mayor Vincent Gray to resign if he continues to refuse to publicly answer questions about a separate investigation into alleged wrong-doing in his 2010 election campaign.
In an interview with Fox 5 TV News, Catania said, “The time has come, especially in light of what we expect to happen with the chairman today, for the mayor to provide answers to the questions that people have regarding his campaign or return as a private citizen and address those issues.”
Catania appeared to express what many observers at the Wilson Building, which serves as D.C.’s City Hall, were saying privately.
“The Wilson Building has been transformed into a rumor mill and, you know, people simply speculate as to when the next shoe will drop,” he told Fox 5 News. “Enough is enough.”
Brown’s resignation came five months after D.C. Council member Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5) resigned less than a week before he was charged with embezzling $350,000 in city funds. Thomas pleaded guilty to the charge and was sentenced in May to 38 months in jail.
Last month, two high-level officials in Gray’s 2010 mayoral election campaign pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations. The violations involved illegally diverting campaign funds to pay a minor mayoral candidate to stay in the race and harass and heckle then Mayor Adrian Fenty, Gray’s main rival in the election.
Gray has said he knew nothing about the scheme, and no evidence has surfaced to indicate he engaged in an illegal act in connection with the payoff to candidate Sulaimon Brown. But sources familiar with the case say federal prosecutors continue to investigate whether Gray and others were involved in the scheme.
On Wednesday, prosecutors with the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia filed a charging document called a criminal information against Council Chair Brown accusing him of engaging in bank fraud.
The document says that between August 2005 and August 2007 Brown “knowingly and willfully devised a scheme and artifice to defraud Industrial Bank, N.A.” It says the alleged scheme involved obtaining a home equity loan from the bank to buy a boat by falsifying loan application documents that overstated his income by “tens of thousands of dollars.”
Sources familiar with the case said Brown consented to the criminal information and waived his right to have the allegation brought before a grand jury. Defendants who select the criminal information option almost always agree to an offer by the government to plead guilty in exchange for a less severe charge or a promise by the government to seek a more lenient sentence, according to court observers.
“I hereby resign my position as Chairman of the Council of the District of Columbia effective immediately,” Brown said in a letter he submitted to the Council’s secretary at 4:29 p.m. Wednesday.
“I have made some very serious mistakes in judgment for which I will take full responsibility,” he said in the letter. “I have behaved in ways that I should not have. I was wrong, and I will face the consequences of that conduct,” he said.
“This is a grim day,” said Rick Rosendall, vice president for political affairs of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance. “Kwame Brown was an ally of the LGBT community, if not in the top rank.”
Rosendall noted that Brown wasn’t an early supporter of same-sex marriage and he didn’t support a bill to allow gay clubs displaced by the Washington Nationals baseball stadium to move to new locations. But Rosendall said Brown “redeemed himself in recent years, including by co-introducing the marriage equality bill.”
Gay Democratic and Ward 8 activist Phil Pannell called Brown’s resignation “heart breaking,” saying he worked on all of Brown’s election campaigns. When Brown ran for the Council Chair position Pannell arranged for him to visit gay bars across the city, helping Brown build support from LGBT voters.
Pannell and Lateefah Williams, president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s largest LGBT political group, said Brown’s departure from the Council would not change the Council’s overall strong support for LGBT related issues.
“My immediate reaction is this won’t have an impact on our community,” Williams said in referring to LGBT support on the Council.
“It is always sad when someone people trust and respect does something to betray that,” said gay Democratic activist Peter Rosenstein. “Kwame Brown will have to pay the consequences but the District is doing well and we need to focus on that and esure that whatever the result of his transgressions are they don’t impact the greater good of the people.”
Council members Phil Mendelson and Vincent Orange, both At-Large Democrats, are believed to be the two candidates in contention for the post of interim chair. Under the city’s Home Rule Charter, the Council has authority to elect an interim chair if the Council chair position becomes vacant. Under the charter, the Council’s four at-large members are the only ones eligible for the interim chair position.
The interim chair serves until a new permanent chair is chosen in a special city election. Sources familiar with the Council have said Mendelson appears to be the favorite for the interim post.
Under the Home Rule Charter, Council member Mary Cheh, who holds the position of president pro tempore of the Council, became the Council’s acting chair until the Council elects the interim chair. Cheh said she has called a special Council meeting for June 13 for the purpose of allowing the Council to elect the interim chair.
Cheh is a strong support of LGBT rights.
Like other political activists, gay Democratic activist Brad Lewis, a former Stein Club president and resident of Ward 8, said he was angered as well as saddened over the Kwame Brown resignation.
“In a short period of time we have had two elected officials resign after being charged with a felony,” Lewis said. “This doesn’t look good for us as a city. It doesn’t help us in our effort to expand home rule and obtain budget autonomy,” he said in referring to longstanding efforts by the city to end Congress’s power to give final approval to the city’s budget.
Pointing to ongoing investigations of other Council members and the mayor, Lewis added, “It seems like half of our officials are under investigation. It all stems from greed and ego. People feel they are above the law.”
D.C. gay Republican leaders Bob Kabel and Robert Turner echoed Lewis’s sentiment. Kabel is chair of the D.C. Republican Party. Turner is president of the D.C. Log Cabin Republicans, a gay political group.
“Our city deserves better than this,” Kabel said in a statement. “The charges against Kwame Brown are serious and are a result of elected officials feeling entitled to benefits they don’t deserve.”
Kabel added, “Until District residents begin electing Republican officials, our city will continue to endure similar embarrassments and unethical behavior from our elected officials.”
Turner said he was troubled that two members of the City Council have resigned over corruption scandals within a period of barely six months.
“Kwame Brown says he wants to take the honorable course by resigning,” Turner said. “The honorable course is not to commit fraud in the first place…Sadly, the question on everybody’s mind is ‘who’s next?’”