- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A local political activist who is the subject of an inspector general’s investigation centered on improper expenditures was elected head of the District’s Ward 5 Democrats Monday night.

Robert Vinson Brannum, accused of using a debit card to spend funds as head of the Fifth District Citizens’ Advisory Council and obstructing efforts to determine how the funds were spent, won handily over the incumbent chairman.

The results make Mr. Brannum the top party official in a ward represented on the D.C. Council by Harry J. Thomas Jr., who agreed to repay $300,000 in funds intended for District children and is the subject of his own investigation. Of 148 voters who turned out in the 75,000-resident ward, most appeared to have a close connection to the Thomas family, which arrived together to cast votes. Harry J. Thomas Sr. previously occupied the council seat held by his son.

The polling location was moved with little notice, confusing less-connected would-be voters.

As the city’s demographics and power structure have shifted dramatically in recent years, perhaps nowhere has power remained concentrated in a small band of the old guard as Ward 5.

Innovations have come in the form of electronic mailing lists that have expanded the community of engaged citizens beyond the core professional activists. Yet those, too, are not free of controls. Mr. Brannum also defeated a write-in candidate, William Boston, who said his prospects were hurt after Mr. Brannum banned him from a neighborhood email list where candidates made pitches, and of which he is moderator.

Most names on the ballot represented the shuffling of elected officers across a network of little-scrutinized boards and advisory commissions, often overseen by close associates.

Mr. Brannum, who said his fellow advisory council members agreed he had done nothing wrong, said the familiar faces were those most concerned about the fate of the community. “People who are active in their communities are active in multiple organizations,” he said.

Angel Alston, outgoing chairman who was on the ballot for re-election, at times entered the polling place, past the point where candidates may campaign.

“When is she wearing her candidate hat, and when is she working?” asked Mr. Boston.

Jacqueline Manning, an advisory neighborhood commission official, was elected vice chairman. She also serves on a panel from which $30,000 was withdrawn and used on Lexus payments after a debit card was obtained in violation of regulations by its chairman, William Shelton — who received a friendly reception at the polling place Monday.

Ms. Manning vociferously resisted taking action against Mr. Shelton, who resigned this past summer, or its treasurer, who said she hadn’t reviewed a financial statement in years but continues to get the support of the commission.

Hours before the election, Mr. Shelton’s replacement, Regina James, who also serves as treasurer of the Citizens’ Advisory Council that Mr. Brannum chairs and who huddled with Mr. Brannum after the election, received an eviction notice from the facility where the local commission has an office.

The notice came after she refused access to financial records to fellow elected officials, in the process invoking the name of Mr. Thomas.

Ms. Manning also fought to ensure that the public discourse in this troubled ward remained only between insiders.

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