- The Washington Times - Monday, June 10, 2013

Former D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown pleaded guilty Monday to a public corruption charge for accepting tens of thousands of dollars in cash stuffed in duffel bags and coffee cups while in office, following in the footsteps of two other former city lawmakers who pleaded guilty last year to federal crimes.

Court documents made public after his plea agreement in U.S. District Court for the District on a charge of accepting $55,000 in bribes also contained previously undisclosed ties between Brown and another long-running scandal in the District — an ongoing investigation into the 2010 campaign of Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

According to court records, Brown in 2007 made a $25,000 donation to his own campaign in an unsuccessful bid for a D.C. Council seat in Ward 4. The papers say that $20,000 of that money, which Brown characterized as a “loan,” was provided by someone identified as “Co-conspirator 1” and that the donation was facilitated by Eugenia Clarke Harris.

Harris, who worked on Mr. Gray’s 2010 campaign, pleaded guilty in July to taking part in a secret and illegal effort that funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the candidate. All the funding for that scheme was provided by a conspirator who went unnamed in court papers but is widely thought to be prolific D.C. political donor Jeffrey E. Thompson.

While not mentioning Brown, 48, in connection with the other investigations involving city lawmakers, prosecutors noted that he is cooperating with authorities. U.S. Attorney for the District Ronald C. Machen Jr. said the sting was not an effort to probe whether council members could be bribed. He said investigators became involved after it was brought to their attention that Brown was seeking between $50,000 and $75,000 from contractors.

“There was a predicate,” Mr. Machen said. “We didn’t target Mike Brown. Mike Brown targeted himself.”

Mr. Machen said contractors were hesitant to make payments to Brown, who served on the council from 2009 to 2013 and was chairman of the Committee on Economic Development and Housing, because they believed the action to be a bribe. Contractors told investigators that they were also hesitant not to pay because they “didn’t think they would have a fair shake at government contracting without doing so,” Mr. Machen said.

Prosecutors said that, between July and March, Brown accepted cash from undercover agents who posed as representatives of a company seeking approval from the District as a certified business enterprise so that it could qualify for lucrative contracts reserved for minority-owned firms. In exchange for the payments, Brown interceded on the company’s behalf, facilitating meetings and making phone calls to help clear regulatory hurdles.

The charge to which Brown pleaded guilty carried a maximum 15 years in prison, but under the plea agreement he faces up to 37 months in prison with three years of supervised release. Judge Robert L. Wilkins is scheduled to sentence him Oct. 3.

“You should be prepared for the eventuality that you begin serving that sentence on that day,” Judge Wilkins said.

Brown, who was released on personal recognizance, also was ordered to forfeit $35,000.

According to court documents, Brown took the cash from an undercover agent, often at restaurants, during the sting operation.

On July 11, Brown met an undercover agent and a person identified in court papers as “Person A” at the Channel Inn in Southwest. Brown received $15,000 in $100 bills in a duffel bag that also contained a Washington Nationals baseball hat and two Nationals T-shirts.

On Aug. 2 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Northwest, Brown was given $10,000 in $100 bills in a Washington Redskins coffee mug. On Aug. 28, he accepted $5,000 in cash in a silver coffee mug at the Channel Inn.

On Nov. 29, also at the Channel Inn, he was given $5,000 in cash in $100 bills in an envelope.

On March 14 at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Northwest, he was given $15,000 cash in $100 bills wrapped in a rubber band. The undercover agent at that meeting also gave Brown a “bonus” of $5,000.

Investigators seized that money, and the court is seeking the balance that Brown accepted.

Brown, who said little during the course of the roughly 45-minute hearing and mostly acknowledged the judge’s questions with short answers, did not speak to reporters after the hearing. His attorney, Brian M. Heberlig, said of Brown that “during a time he was under extreme financial pressure, he made a terrible decision that led to his guilty plea today.”

“Upon learning the nature of the government’s sting operation, he did all the right things,” Mr. Heberlig said, although he declined to elaborate on the nature of Brown’s cooperation with investigators.

Mr. Heberlig also said the investigation was the reason Brown abruptly dropped out as a candidate in an April special election for a D.C. Council seat.

Brown served as an independent council member, though his Democratic roots run deep. His father was Ron Brown, a former Democratic National Committee chief and a secretary of commerce during the Clinton administration who died in a 1996 plane crash.

Though his four-year stint was his only time in public office, Brown had run unsuccessfully for elected positions, including as a Democratic candidate for mayor in 2006 and for the Ward 4 council seat in a special election in 2007.

He switched his party affiliation to independent and in 2008 secured one of two seats reserved on the council for members of the non-majority party but was unseated in November by council member David Grosso.

Brown switched his party affiliation to Democrat this year for the special election seeking the at-large seat vacated when council member Phil Mendelson was elected council chairman.

Throughout his recent campaigns, Brown was dogged by questions regarding his personal finances.

The Internal Revenue Service last year filed a notice of federal tax lien totaling $20,000 against Brown, citing income taxes for the period ending Dec. 31, 2010. It was not the first time Brown had heard from federal tax collectors. Two years earlier, the Internal Revenue Service filed a separate lien notice citing more than $50,000 in income taxes due for 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2008.

Brown also pleaded guilty in 1997 to a misdemeanor election-law violation. He admitted giving $4,000 to friends to donate to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s 1994 re-election campaign in Massachusetts.

Brown pleaded guilty Monday after D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown resigned and pleaded guilty to bank fraud in June.

Former council member Harry Thomas Jr. resigned from his Ward 5 seat and pleaded guilty in January 2012 to stealing $350,000 in public funds intended for youth sports programs. He is serving a three-year prison sentence.

The federal investigation into the Gray campaign is ongoing. That investigation began with unusual claims from a fired city employee, Sulaimon Brown, in 2011 and has spiraled to include a probe of at least $650,000 in unreported campaign funds believed to have come from Mr. Thompson. Mr. Thompson was the primary owner of the accounting firm Thompson, Bazilio, Cobb & Associates and held a lucrative Medicaid contract with the District through D.C. Chartered Health.

So far, the Gray investigation has resulted in guilty pleas from three aides to the campaign with several others implicated but not indicted in the scheme. Neither Mr. Thompson nor Mr. Gray has been charged with a crime.

With the status of that investigation unclear, Mr. Gray has moved forward with his political agenda and has yet to say whether he plans to seek another term in office. But any progress in city public corruption investigations returns attention to the uncertainty about the mayor and creates a fresh public disruption as candidates begin to announce their intention to seek his job next year.

Mr. Machen noted that Brown embarked on his scheme even after his former colleagues pleaded guilty to public corruption charges, and he reiterated his commitment to pursue such investigations.

“If you doubt our resolve, don’t,” he said. “If you believe you’re too smart or your scheme is too complex, you are wrong.”

• Celina Durgin contributed to this report.