By Jana Curry
Michael Brown, the son of the late former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and former Democratic National Committee chairman, was elected to the D.C. City Council in 2008. Many viewed him as a rising star in D.C. politics. As a young child, he wanted to be DC’s mayor and perhaps he was well on his way. He certainly had the right pedigree and name recognition. Public service seemed to be well suited for him having come from a politically solid family name and access to a network of deep-pocketed supporters. But, his life has a politician perhaps has run its course, at least for now.
Brown lost his bid for a second term November 2012 following a most unusual campaign season in which he revealed that more than $113,000 was missing from his campaign account. At the time David Grosso, his opponent, criticized Brown for his personal financial problems. Grosso referred to him as “unfit to serve” because of his failure to pay his taxes, mortgage and rent when due.
The first indication that Brown’s judgment might be flawed appeared in 1997, when he admitted to campaign violations related to late Senator Ted Kennedy’s re-election bid. Brown’s current problems started in June 2012, when his Council campaign was tainted by the questionable disappearance of money from his campaign account. This has led to the former District At-Large Councilmember to be the latest city leader faced with financial scandal.
Brown has become the third member of the DC Council to plead guilty to a felony in the last 18 months. On June 10, 2013, the former city council member plead guilty to federal charges connected to accepting payments from undercover agents he thought were businessmen seeking DC government contracting preferences. In a deal worked out with federal prosecutors, Brown agreed to serve up to three years and one month in prison for accepting $55,000 in bribes.
The undercover FBI agents paid Brown to speed a “certified business enterprise” (CBE) designation for a company they set up. The certification gives firms a significant advantage in city contract bidding. U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said Brown “tried to exploit a broken system” for profit—one which politicians are “able to influence the process of who gets government contracts directly without any kind of independent oversight.”
Brown pled guilty in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The Honorable Robert L. Wilkins scheduled sentencing for October 3, 2013. The charge carries a statutory maximum of 15 years in prison and financial penalties. Under federal sentencing guidelines, the parties have agreed that the applicable range would be 37 to 46 months in prison and a possible fine of $7,500 to $75,000. The plea agreement, which is contingent upon the court’s approval, calls for a sentence of up to 37 months, to be followed by up to three years of supervised release.
According to court documents and court-released videotapes, Brown is shown accepting the bribe money in cash stuffed coffee mugs, duffle bags, and envelops. Starting in July 2012, each meeting that Brown had with the “businessmen,” he accepted various amounts of concealed money. The bribery scheme began the day after his first meeting with an undercover agent, when he accepted $15,000 cash stuffed into a duffel bag, Brown passed the agents the names and phone numbers of two Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD) staff members.
In return for Brown assisting the government contractor (i.e. undercover FBI agents), the contractor would give him money. There were a series of meetings with two undercover FBI agents, posing as employees of a Maryland company that wanted CBE approval and contracting opportunities. Between July 2012 and March 2013, Brown met in person with one or both of the undercover agents a total of eight times.
On March 14, Brown met with the “businessmen,” who handed him $20,000. Federal agents then entered the room, ending the undercover operation.
The plea agreement also calls for Brown to pay a money judgment of $35,000 in forfeiture, covering the amount of money he collected before confronted by law enforcement. Detailed in Brown’s guilty plea on bribery charges revealed another revelation. There’s evidence that he is cooperating with a broader investigation into a D.C. businessman connected to the secret financing of Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 campaign.
Brown may have been alone in pocketing bribes under the guise of a “loan”, which is what he was telling friends, family and constituents. But companies that do business with the District have long complained about having to contribute to the campaigns or constituent-service accounts of elected officials who have a hand in deciding lucrative contracts. Brown’s willingness to manipulate the system to help out a company that clearly had no claim to local certification calls to mind the questionable way in which the city’s contracts were awarded.
Attorney Machen told reporters Monday that problems with the contract system should be addressed. But since legislative solutions are up to lawmakers, that responsibility falls to the same D.C. Council members who have been one of the primary beneficiaries of the system. So unless citizens and voters make themselves heard, business as usual in D.C. will continue.