A  Companion  site  for  the  C-SPAN  series  airing  Sunday  nights  at  8pm & 11pm ET 


Advanced Search
September 9, 2012
Colbert I. King
Washington Post Columnist
Program Details
Watch Program
More Information

Info: Our guest is Washington Post columnist Colbert King. He discusses his twenty-two year career at The Washington Post and details the current political situation within the government of Washington, DC. He describes the resignation of the District of Columbia’s City Council Chairman, Kwame Brown after pleading guilty to felony bank fraud and campaign violations. He talks about the jailing of another City Council member, Harry Thomas Jr., after he admitted guilt for theft of funds and filing a false income tax return. King describes the historical evolution of local government in the District of Columbia, along with the troubled history of past administrations including the arrest and conviction of former Mayor Marion Barry in 1990. He details recent charges of campaign irregularities surrounding the incumbent Mayor of Washington, DC Vincent Gray.

Uncorrected transcript provided by Morningside Partners.
C-SPAN uses its best efforts to provide accurate transcripts of its programs, but it can not be held liable for mistakes such as omitted words, punctuation, spelling, mistakes that change meaning, etc.
BRIAN LAMB: Colbert King, in your August 18 column with the headline ”Who Else Will Fall in D.C.’s Corruption Tale” that’s in the Washington Post, you started off this way: ”Our nation’s capital has a real whodunit on its hands. But this is no tale of fiction.” What’s ”whodunit”?

COLBERT KING: Well, the ”whodunit” is a sort of covers a wide spectrum. We started out with a sort of wacky guy named Sulaimon Brown (ph) who was a gadfly in the 2010 mayor’s campaign. He was a candidate, less little known candidate.

But I moderated one of the campaign debates, and I noticed that Brown was constantly just going after Mayor Fenty. Just zinging him, zinging him, zinging anything with far out comments, crazy comments, and the audience was just lapping it up. And the other candidate, chairman of the council, Vincent Gray, was sort of sitting with a (inaudible) perplexed look on his face.

That went on to the Democratic campaign. After the campaign and Gray defeated Fenty, it turns out that Sulaimon Brown was given a job in the new Gray administration but was fired for a number of reasons. Brown then complained and stated publicly that he had been given money to stay in the campaign, in the primary campaign, to harass Adrian Fenty and he was paid by the Gray campaign to do that.

That set off an investigation. But since that time, this thing has sort of spread like a cancer. So now the question is: Who are the other people who are going to fall in this campaign? Up until this point, we’ve had, not directly related to Sulaimon Brown but in the CDO (ph) alone, one council member resigned was found guilty and is serving time in the penitentiary in Alabama.

Another council member, a council chairman resigned, admitted, confessed to a felony and he’s awaiting sentencing. We’ve had two top campaign aides for the mayor – as a matter of fact, three – all pleaded guilty to felonies in the federal court connected to the campaign and still there are unknowns, who gave the money to Sulaimon Brown to stay in the campaign.

Well, the person who said he gave the money named Howard Brooks said in fact, ”I gave him the money but I didn’t authorize the payments. Someone else authorized the payment.” The U.S. Attorney knows, but they haven’t identified that person. That person is identified as ”person one.”

There’s another individual who comes into the picture who gave a large sum of money to a top aide of Vincent Gray to run a shadow campaign, separate, apart, off the books, not reported to the Office of Campaign Finance. That person has been identified as a confidential source to, not (B), no name but we have to know who that is.

And then, on top of that, there’s another person who conceived of the whole idea of running this shadow campaign. And that individual hadn’t been identified. This is a mystery person.

All these people have been identified in prosecutorial documents as individuals involved in the state. And this doesn’t get to the other spreading cancer we seem to have and that is the D.C. lottery. But the big dispute two years ago about awarding the contract, a very lucrative contract, $64 million, something like that.

There was the dispute. The person who won the contract was rejected by the council. Another firm came along, got the contract. There have been protests about it but also there are complaints filed in court that the individual contracting officer who made the award or recommended the award was fired because he resisted pressure to change his decision, pressure, political pressure to change his decision. He was fired. He’s suing the city. That’s going on.

Meanwhile, there’s an investigation apparently taking place to find out more about the award of this contracts, whether money was involved, graft (ph) was involved in some sort. We don’t know where this is all going to end. But this – those are spreading tentacles of corruption.

LAMB: For those who don’t know these stories around Washington, I want to show a clip of Adrian Fenty who is back – he was here in your seat in 2006. He was the mayor of Washington D.C. He ran again for mayor in 2010 and lost to Vincent Gray. Here’s what the previous mayor looked and sounded like. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ADRIAN FENTY, FMR. MAYOR, DC: There’s just under 600,000 like a lot of other jurisdictions when cities started being mismanaged and people fled the cities. The District of Columbia suffered. But we’re on a rebound.

Under the current administration, there’s been a net growth of about 30,000 residents over the past census. I think all over the city there’s a great development boom happening in downtown, in the neighborhoods. And as we continue to manage our own affairs better, as we continue to show a perception of the city headed in the right direction, people will continue to move here. In our last great challenge, I’m sure we’ll talk about this is like most cities, making sure we have a world class school system.


LAMB: Why was he defeated?

KING: He lost touch with the people. The worst thing that happened to Adrian Fenty in running for election and winning was that he won every precinct in the city, every precinct. He reached a point, some of us think, where you couldn’t tell him anything and that he was losing touch with people.

I think he did a very good job managing the city. He picked up – he took over a city that was put on the rebound by Anthony Williams, the previous mayor. But certainly, Adrian Fenty was a good manager of the city; and he kept us going. But he lost touch with the very people who put him there. And there was a sense, which I think he reinforces in some ways that he was more concerned about the newcomers to the city than the old guard.

And as with – when the racial issue comes in, it wasn’t as pronounced as some would make to be, but there was a sense that he had lost touch with – he didn’t even carry his own ward, the ward that elected him as a ward council member that voted heavily for him as mayor. He didn’t carry that ward in the election. That tells you how much he had sort of grown apart from the people who put him there.

LAMB: You were here three years ago and we talked some about the district. And he referenced the fact the district was just below 600,000. It’s now above, around 620,000 people. Years ago in 1950 it was 800,000.

Let’s talk some about the District of Columbia. And for those far away from here, explain what it is.

KING: There’s a little piece of Maryland and Virginia. Both states gave up some of their territory to create this thing called the District of Columbia. It happened because interesting enough during the continental congress, some of the great veterans had not been paid. And this is when the capital of the United States was in Philadelphia.

So the soldiers or the veterans marched on Philadelphia to demand payment. And the congress at the time looked around and said where – the local police they can’t support us. And of course, they had no local police.

And after that, they said this will never happen again. We’re going to have our own territory where the congress will be there and we will control it. And whenever we need to call for help, we would be able to get it because it’s our territory.

So they created this place called the District of Columbia. It’s in the constitution. Article 1 of the constitution gives congress full control over the District of Columbia. What congress has done and I was there at the time when it was done in 1973 was to delegate some of its authority to a locally elected government to manage the affairs of the district with congress retaining oversight authority over the District of Columbia.

That remains the case. And up until that elected government, we had various forms of government, a government appointed by – a mayor appointed by the president and a city council appointed by the president. At one point we had three commissioners, all of whom were appointed by the president.

All those appointed units is responsive to the congress as it was to the president. But we in the city had no votes at all, no say in our own affairs. Only in 1973-74 did we get the right to vote for own local government. And that’s what we still have now.

And this is what Mayor Fenty was referring to. During that period of the 50s, when we had this great transition part of the school desegregation and all. It was a movement of whites out of the city. That movement out of the city was accelerated in the 60s not by race so much but by crime. The crack epidemic in the 70s just accelerated this.

And we had a number of middle class African-Americans moving out of the city as well, not just for crime but for better schools. There was this decline in the population. And we hit rock bottom I suppose in our financial affairs when the city had lost control of its own financial affairs and congress created a control board, a presidentially appointed control board to run the affairs of the city.

This was during the third term or the fourth terms of Mayor Marion Barry. They literally took control of the city away from Barry, gave it to this control board and appointed a chief financial officer who was a guy named Tony Williams, best thing that ever happened. Tony Williams and the control board put the city’s financial affairs in order. I think there’s a degree of fiscal discipline in the city now that we haven’t had for decades and certainly from the first 20 years of home rule.

We have the discipline now I think regardless of the corruption that is being uncovered. I think the discipline is there with some of the new leaders that will never go back over that financial cliff again, evidence of consecutive balanced budgets for, I don’t know, eight, nine years now. That says a lot about the discipline there.

LAMB: Some more statistics, there are 13 members of the district council.

KING: Yes.

LAMB: All elected by the public?

KING: Yes.

LAMB: Make a $125,000 a year?

KING: Yes. Too much.

LAMB: Why do you say that?

KING: Well, it’s supposed to be a part-time job by law. Except for the council chairman and the mayor, the rest of the positions are part-time. They are the highest city legislators in the country, highest paid city legislators in the country.

They’re not worth it. They don’t – don’t do anything to earn that money, that kind of money. And there’s no accountability there.

LAMB: And the budget’s around $9 billion a year. How much of that comes from the taxpayers around the country?

KING: Not as much as people think. The overwhelming job of the money, the tax dollars spent in the District of Columbia are locally raised tax dollars in excess of, let’s say, there’s $9 billion, probably the federal portion may be $2 billion or $3 billion. But it’s the locally raised money that pays for the city by and large.

And the odd thing is the city has no control over that. Even the locally raised taxes must be approved, spending of it must be approved by congress, which is really outrageous.

LAMB: So the mayor has to go to congress and testify and have his budget …

KING: The mayor and the chair of the council, after the city enacts a budget, it goes up to the Hill where it must wait for congressional approval. They have to go up and testify again and justify what they want to do with our own money.

LAMB: In 2005 there’s a poll that said that 78 percent of Americans did not know if the district had less representation than they did.

KING: Yes.

LAMB: Seventy eight percent, almost everybody.

KING: Yes. Yes. And that probably remains the case now, close to it. And we’ve – the city has tried various ways to publicize that fact. And this week the city, it’s (practical) to the political conventions to make the case about representation.

They didn’t get a chance to do it at all at the Republican convention. And there’s some question whether they’ll be able to get much said at the Democratic convention as well as far as getting a place on the podium to talk about it.

LAMB: These numbers move at about 123 public schools, 46,000 students which has declined over the years. I want to put a picture on the screen of the current mayor, Vincent Gray, and Marion Barry who had four terms as mayor. And when you see that picture, describe after, you know, all these years, how has Marion Barry stayed on the council where he is now?

KING: Well, you have to look at the question of the area that he represents. He represents Ward 8. It’s the most impoverished ward in the city. It’s a ward with the least amount of political participation when you get down to voting although something happened last election (inaudible) also subject to a lot of in scrutiny by – they had a large turnout. But generally, it’s a low turnout ward.

Marion Barry has a support, significant support in that impoverished area in the city because he runs against them, they, the outsiders who are doing this to us. He projects himself well as a protector of the exploited and that he is the voice of the voiceless, that he is standing at the gates against all of the encroaches and those who do harm to women and children in Ward 8. He’s been doing that for a time.

And he demagogues (ph) it sometimes with a smile, sometimes without a smile. But he plays that little (inaudible) segment very well. Marion Barry could not win citywide in this city. He could not win a race for mayor. He could not win a race for at-large council member. He could not, win a race for chairman of the council. He could now win a race to be delegate to the House of Representatives.

Those days are gone for Marion Barry. The demographics of the city have changed. He’s not going to get at least – does have that little piece of territory over there.

LAMB: He was mayor three terms and then went to prison and then came back and ran and won again.

KING: Well, he came back and ran for a council seat and was defeated. But then he came – then he ran again for mayor and was elected.

LAMB: What’s he done wrong over the years? Why did he go to prison?

KING: Let’s see. Would it be better to try to describe what he didn’t do wrong. Well, we had obviously the Vista hotel situation where he was caught smoking crack cocaine and a sting put by the federal government and local government, local police.

He was convicted not of selling or distributing crack cocaine. But he was convicted on a felony connected with the use of cocaine.

LAMB: But there was a video of that.

KING: Pardon?

LAMB: There’s a video on that.

KING: Yes. And he went off to jail for that and served his time, came back, sought forgiveness, claimed to have changed his ways. He’s still bad on his taxes; he doesn’t pay his taxes on time. He’s behind all his taxes. He’s been in court several times.

LAMB: Was he ever found – I remember one of the stories of setting up one of his girlfriends with a grant from the city.

KING: Well, that was a complaint against him. He was censured by the city council for that, for misuse of the money. Subsequently, I believe he was exonerated for that. But he was censured for that use of money, council money, taxpayer dollars given to his girlfriend to write a grant proposal that I don’t think ever materialized. She did produce a document that was carefully borrowed from some other documents. But that’s …

LAMB: Is it fair to say, I mean I read your column every Saturday, that you’re on a tear?

KING: Well, I’m not on a tear. I’m just – I’m just angry. It’s offensive to have people take on a position of public trust and then abuse it and to do it in such a way to almost thumb their noses at individuals.

I find that just difficult to take. And I’ve thought over time I would get accustomed to it. I can’t get accustomed to it. It goes against the grain to see people behave this way.

LAMB: I remember one column you wrote where you actually were trying to get a hold of somebody that had given money to one of the campaigns and they wouldn’t answer your call. You got up and went out to Rockville and knocked on their door.

KING: Right.

LAMB: Say that whole story.

KING: Well, it was a (inaudible). The law of campaign financial law is fairly clear in one respect that an individual is limited to how much money you can give in a public campaign. The way they get around it in the District of Columbia is these fat cats, big developers, big business types create these LLCs, limited liability companies.

They create them. But they’re all sort of independent. And through these companies, they contribute money to campaigns.

LAMB: Are they phony companies?

KING: Well, they are companies that – it’s hard to tell what they do. In some cases the companies are formed around a development project. Most development projects are run by – we have an (OOLC) to prevent lawsuits from coming to the entire ownership, so they create these small companies.

But we have one person behind that generally who’s the mastermind, who’s got the money, who put the money into – he goes to these little – these funnels. It’s funneled through these companies.

What I was trying to demonstrate was that contrary to what the law seeks to achieve through limitations, here’s an individual who circumvents the law by using these various companies as conduits to give money to the same individual. And I was able to demonstrate that I think in the case of several members of the council who were receiving large sums of money from different LLCs controlled by one person.

How did I do it? I went to Virginia. I went to Maryland, different buildings. When you go to a building and you see 12 limited liability companies with the same address right there in that building, on the same floor, at the same suite of offices, and you look and it’s owned by this large developer. And so, it’s very clear that this person is masterminding the flow of funds to this individual which gives that individual an outsized influence.

LAMB: But their checks are also signed by the same person?

KING: In some cases the checks are signed by the same person, a treasurer, a treasurer.

LAMB: Of all these different LLCs.

KING: Of all these different LLCs. And I’ve talked to the treasurers. And in one case that I reported this, I he said well, we just like this candidate. But you know, all that money combined, that’s beyond what the law allows.

Well, technically, they may be right but that’s not the intent of the law. I mean they’ve created these individual companies that under the law would appear to be separate. But when you trace back and look at the source of the funds, it’s pretty clear what’s happening here.

And what makes me so upset about this gets to the sort of heart of the problem why we have what we have in the city. We have institutional failure in the city, institutional failure, failure of an Office of Campaign Finance to really do its job, failure of an Inspector General who was created at the same time they created this chief financial officer and end up with a person to look after waste fraud, abuse in government who would go after the low hanging fruit, somebody in the Office of Motor Vehicles who’s selling licenses on the side, but meanwhile here’s some big fat cat who has circumvented the law and corrupting our politicians.

We also had civic weaknesses. There was time in the city when a strong voice for change, for reform, ethics, progress came from the clergy. That’s gone now. And why is it gone? Significantly, and when I think about clergy, I’m talking about largely the black clergy in the city where we had significant individual ministers, large churches.

The people who moved out of the city in the 60s, 70s and 80s, they moved to surrounding counties. The churches tended to follow them. But the churches didn’t follow; the churches remained there. But the churches had no real grounding in the community.

For example, on any given Sunday, you drive around town and go around any of the large so-called black churches and look at the license plates. They’re Maryland for the most part, some Virginia, few district. What does that mean?

This pastor no longer has a constituency in the city. That constituency is outside the city. That pastor may even have moved outside the city as have several of them, so they don’t have a voice. They don’t have a collective voice. They don’t comment on the morality or immorality in government.

And the few who show up to say something are all politically motivated in one way or the other. For example, we had these revelations about corruption in the city, people pleading guilty, council members going off to jail, council member forced to resign from the council of chairman.

And what do you hear from two of the most prominent black pastors in the city? We have to protect our mayor. He’s innocent until proven guilty. OK. Fine. But what about the criminality? What do you say about the criminality?

LAMB: Here is Mayor Vincent Gray just so that folks who don’t live in this area can see what he looks like and what he sounds like.


GRAY: We also have a robust non-profit community in the District of Columbia that provides a host of services in the city. Many of them really don’t have stable places be able to hang their hats. So we are looking now at creating partnerships; and essentially, it’s a quid pro quo.

It says look, we don’t have the staffing or adequate staffing to be able to operate these centers. You need a place to hang your hat. Why don’t you come in and work with us in terms of as the operating programs in the new recreation center?

The management will continue to be done by the city, but the services would be provided by non-profits who then come in and actually locate in the centers so that we can continue these kinds of important services to our community but we do it without raising costs and in some instances actually reducing costs.


LAMB: He was chairman of the council. And has he in any way had any trouble himself during this process that you’ve been writing about?

KING: He has not been charged with anything. He has not been indicted. He says that he is unaware of the efforts to pay this individual, Sulaimon Brown, to (stand) the campaign in 2010 and harass then Mayor Fenty.

He expressed surprise and shock that some of his top campaign aides have committed felonies and admitted committing, having committed felonies (inaudible) this campaign. He expressed shock that his council member, council Chairman Tony Brown, committed felonies. He expressed disappointment that council member Harry Thomas committed crimes and is now serving time in jail.

And let me just say I hate – Vincent Gray is probably one of the hardest working mayors we’ve had. He works hard at the job. He is in early; he stays in late. He keeps his hands on the mechanics of the city, I mean of the government. He works hard at that. (Inaudible) is at issue.

The issue of – notwithstanding anything else that might happen from this point going forward, it’s fair to say that he had been a poor judge of people and putting together his campaign, in putting together his administration. He’s had a number of problems of putting together a cabinet, of people in the staff, and he had practiced nepotism, cronyism.

All those things have been uncovered. Is it because he moved so much above the fray and was well (conserved) within the (inaudible) of government? I don’t know. I’d say this. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of this. And I talked to him directly about his involvement.

He has looked me in the face on at least three different occasions and told me that he was unaware of any of these activities that these activities are even taking place, that he was not involved in any criminal activity, and that he’s just shocked and surprised and disappointed; three different times he’s told me that. So we’ll have to see what happens over the next weeks and months.

LAMB: What’s the story of Jeanne Clark Harris?

KING: Well, she’s one of his oldest friends, longtime friend. All of a sudden, Jeanne Clark Harris stood in court, not all of a sudden but she ends up in court and she admits that she, in fact, did run this campaign, this shadow campaign and spent this--gave money to people to, in fact, engage in the kind – as conduits to give money to Gray campaign when, in fact, it wasn’t their money.

She took money from someone else, gave this money to individuals to put into the campaign for which they got, you know, reimbursed. You see, (inaudible), this is what they did. She had – a lot of people said, some of them said I didn’t know my name was even there but relatives …

LAMB: Is there a limit on how much you can give a candidate?

KING: Two thousand dollars.

LAMB: And she had 16 people that gave at least $2,000 a piece.

KING: Yes.

LAMB: And where that – you’ve written about this too. You have a suspicion of where that money came from?

KING: Yes. It came from confidential, not confidential source, but it’s co-conspirator two. I think it’s identified that way, co-conspirator one.

LAMB: This comes out of the U.S. attorney, federal official.

KING: Right. He takes her to court. She admits it. The charging documents mentions co-conspirator, co-conspirator A who was the provider of these funds. And she obviously mentioned, identified who co-conspirator A was.

LAMB: Do you know who it was?

KING: Well, speculation that it’s – (inaudible) informed speculation that it’s a businessman named Jeffrey Thompson in the city who heads, once had the largest contract that the city could give in healthcare.

LAMB: (Three hundred million dollars).

KING: Yes. And he also started an accounting firm that also did a lot of business with the city government’s (inaudible) their businesses. So, you know, I sort of see this he was recycling. I mean this was money that we gave to him, and he just recycles money back out to our politicians. And they just kept giving him more contracts. And he’s just (inaudible) insidious in my way.

LAMB: From the race standpoint, the U.S. attorney is an African-American. What’s his name?

KING: It’s …

LAMB: Is it Machen?

KING: Ronald Machen. Ronald Machen. I’m sorry.

LAMB: It’s pronounced Machen though; it’s not ”Machin”. And he works for who?

KING: The U.S. attorney is appointed by the president of the United States technically. But he (works) for the Justice Department.

LAMB: And that’s Eric Holder who is the attorney general. Is Jeanne Clark Harris – did she plead guilty? Is she going to prison?

KING: She pleaded guilty. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. For example, this week one of the individuals, Thomas Gore (ph) who was a campaign treasurer and pleaded guilty to a felony to destroying federal property, he had kept actually the payments, list of the payments made to this guy. But he destroyed the documents that (inaudible) investigation (on the break).

He was supposed to be sentenced this week. He went to the court and the prosecution asked that the sentence be delayed. That suggests to me at least that he and the prosecution continue to have what’s called an exchange of views on what’s going on out there and what should happen. And so, they don’t want to do that (inaudible).

It’s possible that Jeanne Clark Harris, having been convicted, now has an opportunity as part of her plea agreement as a matter fact, they all agreed that they would cooperate with the prosecution. And as a pledge of cooperation, with all those plea agreements, whether it’s hers, whether it’s (Thomas Gore’s), whether it’s (Howard Brooks), they all had entered into plea agreements.

And the condition of that is that they will cooperate with the federal government, with the prosecution. So I think they’re all still having exchange of views and sharing what they know.

LAMB: But to remind people that aren’t familiar with the details, you had Adrian Fenty. And I remember when he was elected, he was under 40 years old. At the same time the police chief, a white woman, was under 40 years old. And the head of education, Michelle Rhee, was under 40 years old. So it’s a very young group..

KING: Yes.

LAMB: Was there any scandal around them by the way?

KING: No. No. None at all. No scandal (of them). They were all talented people. I mean I liked the previous chief who went to Philadelphia. But I think that our current chief of police is just fine.

LAMB: But so, here you have Adrian Fenty running for mayor, winning a second term and you got this Sulaimon Brown who was paid to go after him.

KING: Yes.

LAMB: Stay in the race and go after him. And then when it was over, did he get a job?

KING: He was given a job. He was given a job, but he was fired from that job. And the reasons, a couple of reasons, (inaudible) wasn’t qualified and some questions about some difficulty he was having with the staff. But he was fired.

And then, it was pointed out that he said he was promised a job, that this job was given to him as one of the conditions of staying in the race, not only the money that he had given them but also he would stay in the race. And then when he was finished with that, he would get a job in the government.

But the mayor, Gray, had said well, look there was never really a promise of a job. He said he will give him some consideration. But I think there has been – it’s going to be established that I think that he was promised something specific.

LAMB: OK. Go back to Adrian Fenty for a moment. He’s running again. Sulaimon Brown’s hitting on him. And then, you have Jeanne Harris Clark and others who funded this $653,000 fund separate from Mayor Vincent Gray …

KING: Official campaign.

LAMB: Campaign. And where did all that money come from? He says he didn’t know about that?

KING: He said he didn’t – he says he didn’t know about that. Now he – it is also I think – it’s also been said that he did learn from Jeanne Clark Harris at one point that this individual Jeffrey Thompson was willing to help in the campaign. He was known to finance campaigns throughout the city, and even some several campaigns.

And in fact, Jeanne Clarke Harris arranged for Vincent Gray and Jeffrey Thompson to meet at her home over the dinner table to talk about Thompson’s participation. As a matter of fact, Thompson was the kind of person who before he would give a dime to a politician went to the politician to know that look, I’m going to be the one who’s going to be doing this; so it’s coming from me.

That session took place. What I’m told is that it was never mentioned to, you know, what Gray – people say that Gray was never told that this would be a shadow campaign that it would be in the amount of $600-some thousand, that he wasn’t told – that he was just told that this individual would participate.

And it wasn’t until Jeanne Clark Harris came to see him later after the campaign earlier this year to say that there was some outstanding invoices that had not been paid that Gray realized some of these had not been reported. He told her to report it and he memorialized it with an email to her telling her what she should do.

LAMB: You also write about the son of former Secretary of Commerce and Head of the Democratic National Committee Ron Brown who was killed I believe in an accident, at an airplane accident in Bosnia years ago. His son, Michael Brown, you’ve written about, he’s also on the council. Why? And where does he stumble along the way?

KING: Well, Michael Brown is not – I mean he’s not his father’s son. I mean he is father’s son, but he’s not a Ron Brown. He’s run I think successfully on his father’s reputation. And as legislator, he’s sort of pedestrian. What he’s best known for his failure to pay his income taxes, led to the city and the federal government the liens that have been placed on him. And he’s satisfied them now, but he’s had some real difficulty with his finances.

And so, we’ve written about them. In addition to that, he was convicted of campaign financing himself by funneling money through a federal campaign, a senators campaign that through individuals who actually were real brief with their payments. He gave them money to (inaudible) campaign and then they got reimbursed for it. He encouraged them to make the payments and they made the payments. And then, he reimbursed them for the payments that they made. He was convicted for it by the federal government.

LAMB: Let’s go back for a minute to the chairman of the council, Kwame Brown. What did he do wrong and why is he going to prison?

KING: Well, it’s interesting with Kwame Brown and it tells you something about the institutions that we have here. His campaign, his reelection campaign was under investigation by the Office of Campaign Finance for various violations. The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics looked at the report and referred the matter to the U.S. attorney for prosecution, the Kwame Brown campaign for prosecution.

As so often is the case, and which is happening here, as they looked at Kwame Brown, they discovered other things. In this case, and this is a bank fraud where he obtained a loan from the bank, from the federal institution, misrepresenting himself, the amount of money he had, the jobs he had, his ability to pay it back. And he did it on – got the loans primarily on the strength of his name and being a council member.

But he also lied when he said that he had X amount of money (also) from another source when he didn’t have it. And that was a felony. And so, they got him on a felony conviction and some other misdemeanors as well in the (inaudible) campaign finance.

LAMB: But you had talked to him in the middle also. And he told you that he had been …

KING: No. But yes, not one person I’ve talked to said Colby, I want to take this opportunity to tell you I’m guilty; not one. They all said look, I don’t know what this is about; I’m clean. They’ve all said that, all of them that I’ve written about.

And to me, this is the other thing that’s bothersome. And it sounds like a stretch, but OK, you can tell that to me. I’m a journalist and my job is to do what I do and you do what you do. But they turn to their supporters, people who really believe in them and say you’ve gotten this wrong; they’re lying; they’re out to get me. They’ve done it good because I’m black. They’re trying to do it because I care about you. They’re trying to do it because I fight for poor people.

They use all those arguments and their supporters believe them. To me, that is despicable, to misuse people like them. It’s one thing to commit a crime. (Inaudible) you turn around and take the people who want to believe in you, I didn’t do it; they’re wrong; I’m right; believe in me. And they say we will and they invested in you. And you know doggone well you’re misleading them. That’s despicable.

LAMB: You mentioned in a column that I read sometime ago when you’re writing about Marion Barry that there’s something like Adam Clayton Powell and Marion Barry. And for those who’ve never heard of the name, who was he?

KING: Adam Clayton Powell was a political institution in New York. He was a congressman representing Harlem.

LAMB: Charlie Rangel’s district?

KING: Charlie Rangel’s district. But he had that district for a number of times. He is also a major – a pastor in Harlem of Abyssinian Baptist Church. And that was his platform, powerful speaker, sort of mesmerizing individual. He could really give a good speech. And he worked that ”we against them, they against us” angle very well.

LAMB: Let me interrupt you, show a piece of video of Adam Clayton Powell. He’s long dead but let’s watch this.


ADAM CLAYTON POWELL: Black power means black dignity. Just as surely as you’re proud to be white, we’re proud to be black. Black is beautiful, baby; it’s pretty. I always say to my brothers, I say baby, don’t worry about the white chicks. We got everything from chalk to charcoal in our own race.

Black is beautiful. Black power means dignity. It means we got to walk side by side with you, or through you. We got to be with dignity and integrity. We don’t want any more than you have and I’m going to accept any less than you have.


LAMB: What happened to him?

KING: He died.

LAMB: Yes. Who decides that? I mean …

KING: He had – he ran afoul of his own colleagues in the House of Representatives. (inaudible) absentee record – flamboyant behavior, questions of illegal activity, they censured him in the congress. He fought that and the case went to the Supreme Court. I think he won.

But he was so discredited that that was sort of the end of him. I think he spent a lot of his life (an island) (inaudible) that he had gone to with his girlfriend who later became his – I think later became his wife.

But he was a flamboyant figure. And with all of this talk about, you know, black power (inaudible) – he was a Democrat. He got upset with the Democratic Party when they were running Adlay Stevenson (ph). And decided, he would endorse Dwight Eisenhower the Republican.

What was that all about? Well, it was about Adam Clayton Powell saying, you know, Stevenson’s not going to win, so I’m going to go with Eisenhower.

LAMB: But what do you know from talking to folks as to why they believe people like Adam Clayton Powell or Marion Barry when they come to them after they’ve made a mistake and they stay with them? What’s the purpose?

KING: Well, it’s – we believe in redemption. We believe in redemption. Person falls; says I’ve fallen, confesses, beg forgiveness. We’re going to forgive them; stay with them, we’re going to forgive them. That’s sort of part of the culture, plus the other thing is there is this feeling that yes, he got too big for his britches and they knocked him down.

And so, we can’t let them knock him down. Yes, Adam did this; Adam did that. Marion did this; Marion did that. When you’re a strong black man, they’re going to come after you.

LAMB: Is this a white-black thing?

KING: Yes. It’s a white-black thing. It’s a white-black thing. It’s middle class-poor thing. It is – because both of them held themselves out as representatives of the downtrodden that I’m going to speak up for you. And they became the voice that the voiceless didn’t have.

Sure. That behavior you saw was kind of audacious. But that was the audacity that they didn’t have, but it was spoken in their behalf. And they could say good, he’s saying to them what I wish I could say. But he’s saying it for me.

Whether it’s Marion saying get over it to the white part of town when they were upset, when he won his election, reelection, and they just started oh, this is terrible.; get over it, said Marion. Adam saying yes, that’s what they’re trying to tell me but they’re not going to tear down old Adam. And people said yes because he’s carrying the torch for us.

Can’t deliver, but you know, he doesn’t have that kind of power to deliver but he’s standing up for us. They’re never going to give him that kind of power where he can do all these things, but he’s standing up for us.

LAMB: Have you – I mean you’ve been the lead on writing about all these. Have you gotten any accusations of being an Uncle Tom in this?

KING: No. Look, I’ve talked to Marion Barry. They all – it’s not a matter of being Uncle Tom. It’s a matter of – I mean I would accept the charge except that it doesn’t hold up. And I’ll tell you why it doesn’t hold up.

I am offended by individuals who misrepresent who we are. Marion Barry is Marion Barry. Marion Barry is not the African-American population. He may try to appropriate that for his political purposes, but he is not.

And neither is Adam Clayton Powell. And there are standards to which he must be held, which he must be judged. White, black, brown, yellow, there’s standards. And yet the (inaudible) of those standards meet those standards. You’ve seen them, but you don’t separate standards for that kind of behavior.

And I don’t like the idea that people would conclude that Marion Barry reflects the values, hopes, the aspirations of the African-American community in the city. That’s – we’re far too diversified a population to say anything like that and suggest anything like that, and that there are things that are right and wrong, good and bad, and we ought to hold ourselves to those standards and that kind of accountability.

LAMB: We didn’t talk much about Harry Thomas who was also a member of the council and what happened to him.

KING: Well, Harry Thomas, this is a good example of them talking about – he was a champion of young people, champion of youth, ran and oversaw a recreation department as a member of the council, came from a family of civic leaders.

His father was a member of the council. He took his father’s seat. His mother was a very good school principal. It turns out that he was siphoning public money for his own personal use. It’s as simple as that and used his position to get money that he directed to a program that in fact gave the money to him for his own personal use. He was guilty.

LAMB: How did he do it? I mean how …

KING: Well, what he would do – he’d earmark money, appropriation money to go to certain organizations.

LAMB: From the district pot.

KING: From the district pot money, city appropriations to go to certain organizations that were performing so-called public service (goods), programs for kids. In one particular case the money went to the organization but the organization essentially gave it back to organizations controlled by Harry Thomas, those organizations controlled by (hands) support, cars, golf trips, clothes, things like that. That’s how he did it.

LAMB: What was his story? Was it Kwame Brown that – the automobile store?

KING: No. Kwame Brown wanted to have a bigger SUV …

LAMB: Yes.

KING: When he was acting as chairman of the council. That comes with the territory I guess a car, but he wanted a certain kind. He wanted a big black – what was it called? Was it a Cadillac? No. It wasn’t a Cadillac. It was a large SUV but it was fully loaded.

He wanted it fully loaded with everything. That’s what it was called, fully loaded Kwame Brown. And he got this vehicle that had tremendous cost to the city. And when he was called one day, he said oh, I didn’t know it cost that much; oh, I’ll pay the city for the difference, et cetera, et cetera.

LAMB: It was like 2,000 a month.

KING: Yes. But the problem was – and I thought about this a lot because during the campaign, I moderated one of his debates as well. And the question was about his own personal finance that there had been some discussion earlier in the year about indebtedness that he had.

And I wondered whether I should ask a question from the audience. And I posed the question to him from the audience. And he said well, my finances are all in order now. And I really thought that was kind of intrusive, but I wanted you to know that I’ve taken care of all of this.

Well, clearly, he had not. And the other thing that car business showed was that he had – he really had champagne ideas, with a soda water pocketbook. And you know, it turns out that he bought a yacht, I mean a big boat. That he kept it docked them in the city. He couldn’t afford something like that. There are other things he couldn’t afford, but he wanted to live big and that was a failure.

LAMB: But for those that live outside of this area who’ve never been here, 600,000 people roughly in the district and another – I mean the whole area’s about 6 million people, so this is the doughnut, the hole in the doughnut. And these communities outside watch all this happen.

And I know that you don’t want this question, but what is the impact of this from the congress? I know the last thing you want is the congress to get their hands into the district. What’s the future of a couple of senators and a representative?

KING: I think we’re going to have to wait on that for a while. My biggest concern now is given what we went through with the congressional, with the financial prices and intervention of congress with the financial control board, what would be the result of the city having further changes, not just losing a council chairman and having one council member go to jail, but if we had other casualties in terms of our political leadership.

LAMB: Like the mayor.

KING: Like the mayor. Like other members of the council. If that were to happen, what will be the response from the Hill? And I go back now to my earlier point about civic weaknesses.

We need to have the ability to say to the congress in behalf of ourselves that we have the ability to handle this matter. We don’t need intervention; we can handle it. And that means we have to have an effective inspector general, an effective Office of Campaign Finance and an election board. We have to have a civic community that demands reforms and holds politicians accountable. Those things, evidence of those things happening will be enough I think to say, discourage intervention from the Hill.

LAMB: What are the constituents’ services funds that they have?

KING: Slush funds.

LAMB: Where does the money come from?

KING: Lobbyists. Constituents serve these funds. A number – they decided – the council, these funds that the council members have, they decided that they had to have in addition to whatever the city does in the executive branch to take care of services, they had to have a sum, pot of money themselves that they could take care of constituents with, who had emergencies and things like that.

And so, they created these funds. And then, they would go out and have fund raises. Who would they turn to? Lobbyists, people who did business with the city, developers. And you look at their reports and you see all these fat cats and influence peddlers kicking money into their little funds.

And they would give – and you look at the use of the funds and they weren’t always taking care of the lady who couldn’t make her electric payment or couldn’t get the mortgage money together or somehow the cupboard was bare for this week and they needed – they were going buying baseball tickets, throwing parties.

LAMB: What was the deal between the baseball team and the council?

KING: Well, they negotiate – the council just negotiated this deal for themselves and the mayor where they would get X number of tickets.

LAMB: Free?

KING: Free of course; free. And what happened was the mayor, Fenty got all the tickets and held them and wouldn’t give some of them to the council. They were weeping and wailing and treating it as if, you know, their world was about to come to an end as (inaudible). And there was – Fenty got back and forth that they shouldn’t have the tickets in the first place.

LAMB: Was the Washington national stadium built with any taxpayer money?

KING: Well, taxpayer bonds, yes. Yes. We’re behind this thing. Yes. Yes. Of course; of course. This is our baby. Well, it’s not our baby; it belongs to the people who run it. But we put the bonds up for it.

LAMB: When do you expect the next shoe to drop?

KING: I think it will be before the middle of October. I think get these conventions out of the way. If you go back and look earlier at what happened in the year, the U.S. attorney held off to (a now) primary in April so that nothing that he did could be seen or construed as interfering with the local election. But after the primary, in May and June, boom, boom, boom; he started.

I think we’ll get these conventions out of the way. And before we can turn to our own elections in November and I think the window of opportunity would be in the last part of September, early part of October. We’re going to see some things that will make a (half stand) on that.

LAMB: What do you think will happen to the mayor?

KING: It’s hard to say.

LAMB: You have been writing for the Washington Post now for how many years?

KING: Well over 20.

LAMB: And your column can be found – if people wanted to go back and read all these columns that you’ve read, how can they find them?

KING: Washington Post appears in – posts on Saturdays; so it’s online. You go to Post online. You go to my name and they’ll show you the list of columns that I’ve written. And the archive is all there for (inaudible) it’s there.

LAMB: And the audience should know that Colbert King was born in Columbia Hospital in the District of Columbia.

KING: Yes. Where some of the better Americans such as (Al Gordon), others were born. Yes.

LAMB: I want to read one line from your August 18 column under the headline ”Who Else Will Fall in D.C’s Corruption Tale?” You say the theme song playing in the background of this D.C. story is Barrett Strong’s 1959 hit ”Money (That’s what I want)”. ”The best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and the bees. I need money; that’s what I want.”

KING: ”The best things in life are free but you can give them to the birds and bees. I want money. Yes, that’s what I want; yes, I want money. Yes, that’s what I want.” And that song was – that’s it.

That’s what was behind it all. That’s what’s been driving this thing. Money.

LAMB: Thank you, Colbert King, for spending some time with me.


C-SPAN  ·  American Writers  ·  American Presidents · Booknotes  ·  Book TV
Capitol Hearings  ·  Students & Leaders