Spate of corruption stains otherwise thriving DC

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WASHINGTON (AP) - Mayor Vincent Gray often calls the District of Columbia “the envy of the nation” for its robust economy and fast-growing population, but some say the local government he leads - plagued by corruption, pay-to-play politics and disengaged voters - is a stain on the city’s progress.

The latest bruise to the city’s reputation involves Gray, who is under federal investigation. Prosecutors say he knew about a $668,000 campaign slush fund that helped him get elected in 2010, and while Gray has not been charged, five people involved with his campaign have been convicted. Separately, three former members of the D.C. Council have pleaded guilty to felonies, including bribery and embezzlement, in less than 2 ½ years.

The district is far from unique among cities that have suffered through a spate of criminal activity, alleged or otherwise, but the recent crimes are unprecedented for the local government.

Some believe corruption has been enabled in part because many residents maintain political loyalties elsewhere or pay closer attention to the federal government, the city’s largest employer.

“We suffer the serious handicap of a citizen base that is only marginally invested in our success,” said Johnny Allem, a 40-year veteran of city politics who worked as a spokesman for former Mayor Marion Barry, who was elected to a fourth term in the mid-1990s despite a drug conviction. “Too many of our residents and citizens consider themselves travelers passing through.”

Ron Faucheux, a veteran Washington-based pollster and the president of Clarus Research Group, said: “You have some people who make a living off of politics who live in Washington, D.C., and can’t name their own member of the city council.”

For those paying attention, there’s plenty to gawk at.

On Jan. 1, 2011, the day Gray was sworn in, Kwame Brown took office as D.C. Council chairman, Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. began a second term and Michael A. Brown was halfway through his term as an at-large councilmember.

Three years later, Thomas and both Browns - who are unrelated - are gone. Kwame Brown pleaded guilty to bank fraud and resigned. Michael Brown admitted to taking bribes from undercover agents posing as businessmen seeking city contracts, and Thomas embezzled more than $350,000 in city money intended for youth programs.

“There’s no evidence that Washington, D.C., is more corrupt than other major American cities,” said Mark Rom, a Georgetown University political scientist.

Corruption, he said, is often “invisible, so we don’t really know how much is going on in different places before it gets exposed.”

Just last month, former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin was convicted on 20 corruption charges, and last fall, former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in prison for corruption.

But those cities aren’t under the thumb of Congress, which has the final say over Washington’s budget and laws. City residents only gained the right to elect their mayor and council in 1973, and some say the city’s fight for greater local autonomy and voting representation in Congress has been hurt by the failures of local leaders.

Last year, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., compared the district’s requests for greater autonomy to teenagers seeking more spending money from parents. Mica chairs a House subcommittee that oversees district government.

The latest trouble has opened up the district to mockery once again, much as Barry did when he was videotaped smoking crack cocaine in an FBI sting operation in 1990.

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