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Suspicions likely laid the basis for feds’ sting of Brown

Ex-council member faces bribery charge hearing

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A calculated federal sting operation such as the one that ensnared former D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown for bribery wouldn't have gotten off the ground without evidence of prior suspicious dealings, former federal prosecutors said.

Investigations, like the sting through which Mr. Brown was charged with accepting $55,000 from FBI agents he thought to be business representatives, "typically don't fall out of the sky, so to speak," said Glen Donath, a former assistant U.S. attorney who worked in the District's Fraud and Public Corruption Section.

"These things are labor-intensive and cost-intensive," he said. So rarely would such an investigation — court documents indicate this one lasted eight months — be approved without at least some indication of criminal activity.

Federal prosecutors on Friday charged Mr. Brown with one count of felony bribery for accepting money from undercover agents who posed as representatives of a company seeking approval from the District as a certified business enterprise. A plea hearing in Mr. Brown's case is scheduled for Monday in U.S. District Court for the District before Judge Robert L. Wilkins, whose appointment by President Obama to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is pending.

Mr. Brown's attorney, Brian M. Heberlig, confirmed Mr. Brown will plead guilty to the charge, calling the transaction a "serious lapse in judgment at a time when he faced severe financial difficulties."

To warrant the operation, prosecutors had likely received tips, be it from confidential informants, cooperators or other means, that led them to believe Mr. Brown had a predisposition to accepting bribes, said former prosecutors, none of whom worked on the Brown case. But rather than take a risk and base charges on information received from those sources, prosecutors in this case resorted to a sting in order to get an airtight case.

"From a prosecutor's standpoint, they have to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, and so a classic cooperator who is trying to curry favor is not always a credible witness," said William Gould, a former assistant U.S. attorney who worked in both the District and the Western District of Virginia. "If you get a couple people like that, what you might do is an operation with a law-enforcement officer, like an FBI agent. It really locks down a case in a way that just a cooperator couldn't just explain."

Jonathan Barr, who served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Fraud and Public Corruption Section of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District from 2002 to 2008, said stings still have inherent risks.

"Courts and juries hate sting operations that appear to target otherwise law-abiding people," he said. "Thus, the key to a successful bribery sting operation is the ability to show that the defendant was predisposed to commit the crime in the first place with evidence of a previous attempt or willingness to solicit or accept a bribe. A plea bargain before indictment in a bribery sting case usually signals the existence of bribe-related conduct that predates the sting."

But based on the recent past — with two D.C. Council members pleading guilty to crimes last year and the mayor under federal investigation — as much justification might not be needed to launch a new investigation, Mr. Donath said.

"With the D.C. Council, you're already starting with a significant presumption of wrongdoing," he said. "The bar is probably lower than with other government bodies."

The sting on Mr. Brown began in July at a time he was working with authorities to figure out what became of more than $100,000 he said had been stolen from his campaign account, supposedly by a trusted aide. No charges have ever been filed against the former campaign treasurer, Hakim Sutton, whom Mr. Brown fired.

Mr. Brown, whose late father, Ron Brown, served as commerce secretary in President Clinton's Cabinet and as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was elected in 2008 as an independent.

At the time the sting began, he was running for re-election as an at-large council member. He was defeated in November after a string of embarrassing disclosures, some of them having to do with his finances. In addition to the campaign theft, which he announced in June, he was also dogged by questions about his personal finances because of tax liens.

The federal sting operation continued as Mr. Brown continued his campaign, later vying for an open at-large seat in a special election. But he abruptly dropped out of the race less than a month before the April 23 election, offering little explanation other than he had "important personal and family matters" that required his attention.

His withdrawal came less than a month after the FBI ended their sting operation March 14, court documents indicate.

"In the public corruption cases when plea deals are being discussed, certainly the government is not going to let an official stay in office," Mr. Donath said. "I think it's safe to assume that any plea deal would require him to drop out of the race."

The charge comes after former D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown resigned and pleaded guilty to bank fraud last year. Former council member Harry Thomas Jr. resigned from his Ward 5 seat and pleaded guilty last year to stealing $350,000 in public funds intended for youth sports programs.

A federal investigation into the 2010 campaign of Mayor Vincent C. Gray is ongoing.

"The D.C. Council has proven to be a very target-rich environment," Mr. Donath said.

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