- The Washington Times
Thursday, June 7, 2012

Federal prosecutors accused former D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown on Thursday of violating the city’s campaign finance laws by authorizing a relative to set up a “side account” for his 2008 re-election campaign as an at-large member of the council.

The misdemeanor charge filed in D.C. Superior Court added to Mr. Brown’s legal woes one day after he resigned his seat at the John A. Wilson Building. He stepped down Wednesday in the face of a felony charge that accuses him of lying on a home equity loan application by overstating his income between 2005 and 2007, in part to finance his boat named “Bullet Proof.”

The new charge, although technically less serious, could weigh more heavily in public opinion about Mr. Brown’s time in power and what is left of his political reputation. Unlike the fraud charge, campaign finance laws relate to the public’s business and Mr. Brown’s efforts to retain his seat on the council.

Mr. Brown had appeared to be attempting to draw a line between his public service and the personal financial problems for which he was criminally charged.

Earlier this week, he told reporters he had no plans to resign “at this time” and did not think he broke any laws during the 2008 campaign.

Both assertions were cast into the ether within 48 hours.

Mr. Brown is scheduled to enter a guilty plea to the bank fraud charge at the federal courthouse on Friday morning. Afterward, he will head next door to the D.C. Superior Court for a plea hearing on the campaign-related charge in the afternoon.

For the last year, Mr. Brown had been plagued by questions surrounding his 2008 re-election campaign after an April 2011 audit said he passed $239,000 in expenditures to a firm controlled by his brother, Che Brown.

Court papers filed in connection with the campaign finance charge do not name the person who set up a clandestine campaign account at Industrial Bank but say it was “a relative” who did not serve as the campaign treasurer.

Mr. Brown knew about the account and authorized the relative to make withdrawals on behalf of the campaign committee, the papers said.

Prosecutors say at least one “cash campaign expenditure” of more than $50 was made on or about Sept. 11, 2009, using the side account.

The misdemeanor was filed as an information, a type of charging document that indicates a plea deal is imminent.

On Thursday, the hallways around Mr. Brown’s offices were quiet and showed little evidence of the scrum of TV cameras and staffers that caused an uproar less than 24 hours prior. Mr. Brown’s name was stripped off the placard outside his former office door.

Several of his staff members, dressed in casual clothes, gathered outside the council chamber before heading out to lunch in the late morning.

Their employment status is unclear, though council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, said they would be employed at least through next week when members select one of four at-large members to serve as acting chairman until a special election is held.

Observers say council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, enjoys broad support to fill the role, although Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, is also in the running and contends he has an equal chance to garner a majority of votes among his colleagues.

“I don’t think it’s as rosy a picture of Mendelson” as has been portrayed, Mr. Orange said Thursday.

In an interview, Mr. Mendelson said he is seeking the job and plans to run for the permanent position in November. He declined to speak about private discussions with his colleagues but said “there is a good chance there will be a consensus” when members pick their interim chairman next week.

Mr. Mendelson said he would like to see as little disruption as possible at city hall during this transition. He is talking to his colleagues about whether committee assignments should be reorganized — Mr. Brown delegated some committee duties on Tuesday before his departure — ahead of November’s elections and the end of the council period on Dec. 31.

If he becomes chairman, Mr. Mendelson will have to focus on both the Committee on the Judiciary, of which he is currently chairman, and the Committee of the Whole, which has oversight of educational matters and a smattering of agencies.

“I’m not interested in continuing with a supersized Committee of the Whole,” he said. “At the same time, it’s really hard for the council to legislate when there’s constant changing of committees … This is a tough time for all of the council.”

Mr. Mendelson said it “makes sense” to hold the special election for chairman in conjunction with the Nov. 6 general election, which is certain to draw a large turnout for the presidential contest, as long as D.C. law permits it.

Mr. Orange said for now, his primary focus this November will be re-election to his at-large post as the Democratic nominee.

A spokeswoman for the D.C. Board of Elections said Thursday that candidates would be allowed to appear on the ballot in both the council chairman race and the at-large contest in November because the general election and the special election are district races.

It is “no secret” that Mr. Orange is interested in the top council position, since he lost the race for chairman to Mr. Brown in 2010. On the campaign trail, Mr. Brown had to deflect highly publicized questions about lawsuits related to large debts and excessive spending habits. Although he still topped Mr. Orange, his personal troubles led to his political downfall and provided a window for others to campaign for the center seat on the council dais.

“Clearly, I’ll look at all options,” Mr. Orange said. “There’s a lot that’s going on.”

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