- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Frederick Butler says he is ready to hit the pavement once D.C. voters get the green light next week to start the recall process against Mayor Vincent C. Gray and other city politicians finishing a tumultuous year.

The city’s Board of Elections and Ethics on Tuesday will begin accepting recall notices for D.C. officials elected in 2010, and Mr. Butler says he has a network of volunteers ready to follow through on his efforts.

“It’s something I’ve been doing under the radar for a while,” said Mr. Butler, a Ward 6 resident. “I’m not an anti-Gray person. He’s not getting the job done.”

Recall rumblings are one thing, but a lot of shoe leather goes into putting a sitting official’s job on the line. In fact, no citywide or wardwide recall effort has made it to the ballot in the District, according to the elections board.

Efforts to do the unprecedented could indicate whether 2011 was a banner year for ethical lapses and missteps among D.C. officials or whether city residents are scandal-weary and would rather move on than engage in the divisive recall process.

A year ago, Mr. Gray swept into office in decisive fashion and then saw his political mandate crumble among allegations of nepotism and “fast-track” hiring in his Cabinet, and allegations by a minor mayoral candidate that he was paid to bash incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty during last year’s campaign.

Investigations into the allegations have fallen short of incriminating the mayor, and the swirl of intrigue has largely faded. But a pair of personnel misfires late in the year that forced him to scuttle his nominees for deputy chief of staff and for chairman of the elections and ethics board were reminiscent of early stumbles, and Mr. Gray’s popularity has plummeted. Meanwhile, the council has had to stave off allegations that it lacked an ethical compass and could not police itself.

Besides the mayor, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown and council member Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat, face ongoing federal probes.

None of the targeted officials has admitted to any criminal liability or faced indictment, and they are forging ahead with their political agendas as the executive branch and the council attempt to put a rough year behind them through recently passed ethics legislation.

“They haven’t cleared the air at all,” Mr. Butler said, calling the recent ethics bill a public relations move that “really, to be quite honest, does nothing.”

The legislation crafted by council member Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, removes the prohibition on recall efforts in the first or fourth year of an elected official’s term if the newly established Board of Ethics and Government Accountability finds an elected official violated the city government’s code of conduct. The bill, which is awaiting the mayor’s signature and congressional review, also expels an elected official for a felony conviction rather than the current law requiring incarceration and sets up a system to impeach a council member.

Mr. Gray’s spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, said the administration is not aware of any recall effort against him.

“Regardless, the mayor is not focused on it,” he added. “He is focused on doing the job he was elected to do.”

Recall process

An elections board spokeswoman said the board has fielded calls and inquiries about the recall process in recent weeks. A recall election for Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4B04 is scheduled for Feb. 28, but no such effort against a city or ward official has ever gotten near that stage, she said.

To start the process, a registered D.C. voter may file a notice to recall one year after an official’s term begins.

Mr. Butler explained how he scaled back his “Recall Vince Gray” website and a corresponding Twitter feed over the summer — a period when investigations into Mr. Gray’s campaign tactics and hiring practices were consistently making headlines — for risk of flouting D.C. laws against organizing a recall during the first or fourth year of an elected official’s term.

The elected official has 10 days to file a response before the elections board issues petitions to the organizer of the recall.

Then, the hard part begins. Organizers must collect signatures from 10 percent of the electorate in the city or in the ward, depending on the type of official subject to the recall.

For citywide officials such as the mayor or council chairman, voter rolls call for more than 45,000 signatures. A recall effort in Ward 5 would require just shy of 6,000 signatures, according to elections board statistics.

Citywide recall efforts also must meet ward distribution requirements, namely obtaining signatures from at least 10 percent of the electorate in five of the city’s eight wards as part of the overall requirement.

Organizers have 180 days to fill petitions before elections officials verify signatures as registered voters and match a random sample of signatures against those in their records. The elections board refers to the verification process as “complex and detailed.”

If elections officials certify the petition, a recall election “for” or “against” removal will be scheduled within 114 days. A successful recall will prompt the board to schedule a special election for the vacancy within 114 days.

It is too late to get a recall question on the April primary ballot, yet successful recalls could trigger special elections by November.

Harry Thomas Jr.

Of the trio most frequently named in recall rumors, Mr. Thomas’ faces the most immediate problems. He agreed to pay the District $300,000 after the D.C. attorney general filed a lawsuit claiming he used his for-profit business and a nonprofit organization, Team Thomas, to redirect funds earmarked for youth baseball programs to his personal use. On Dec. 2, agents from the FBI and Internal Revenue Services raided his Northeast home and seized his sport utility vehicle and motorcycle as part of a federal probe into the matter.

“We know of no legitimate efforts to recall Mr. Thomas, or any other member of the council, so we have no comment,” Frederick Cooke, Mr. Thomas’ attorney, said Tuesday.

Mr. Thomas has not heeded calls from some of his colleagues to resign or take a leave of absence.

Debbie Smith-Steiner, a former ANC commissioner who unsuccessfully ran against Mr. Thomas for council in 2006, said a legitimate recall effort is being spearheaded by Mr. Butler with ample support from community associations.

“Yes, we are on it,” she said Tuesday. “It is alive and kicking.”

Ms. Smith-Steiner said Sinclair Skinner, a controversial ally of Mr. Fenty, will serve as the Ward 5 coordinator for Mr. Butler’s recall efforts.

“I believe that we’re going to be successful,” she said of efforts to remove Mr. Thomas. “If the justice system is not going to do it, then the people-system will do it.”

Tim Day, a Republican and tax accountant who first accused Mr. Thomas of financial discrepancies during the 2010 campaign, said he does not plan to lead any efforts to recall Mr. Thomas. He has heard of several people in the ward who intend to lead a recall, but he fears the process will be fractured and driven by people looking to take Mr. Thomas’ seat.

“I’m kind of playing it by ear,” Mr. Day said. “If I see there’s not an organized effort, I will definitely organize an effort. He’s not doing what’s best for Ward 5.”

Mr. Day said he has no plans to run for the seat, should a recall be successful, but would likely run during the normal election cycle in the future.

Kwame R. Brown

Jeff Steele, who co-writes the D.C. Urban Moms and Dads blog, wrote an entry in July called “Kwame Brown Must Resign” after news reports questioned whether the council chairman put taxpayers on the hook for the lease of two “fully loaded” Lincoln Navigators, which have since been returned.

But like Mr. Day, he has no plans to personally file any recall paperwork.

“However, I will support an effort to recall Brown,” Mr. Steele said. “I don’t support recalling Gray at this time, but that could change. I believe that Thomas should also be recalled, but I am not a Ward 5 resident and will, therefore, leave that issue to others.”

Besides the Navigator troubles, an audit of Mr. Brown’s 2008 re-election committee found serious financial irregularities in his campaign reports and prompted a referral to the U.S. Attorney for the District. A recent poll by Clarus Research Group fueled recall talk, with Mr. Brown chalking up an approval rating of 23 percent and disapproval rate of 57 percent. Mr. Gray came in at 34 percent approval and 53 percent disapproval.

“Chairman Brown is focused on doing his job and delivering what he has promised for District residents — not on rumors or speculation,” his chief of staff, Megan Vahey, said Tuesday.

Mr. Gray, Mr. Brown and Mr. Thomas are Democrats, yet the D.C. Republican Committee has no plans to instigate a recall.

“It’s up to the voters,” DCGOP Executive Director Paul Craney said, noting his organization would play a supporting role to any legitimate efforts.

As a political observer for the rival party, Mr. Craney said recall efforts have a tendency to become “personality driven,” yet low popularity ratings could indicate sufficient support for recalls. The Web is an important organizational tool and petitioners could use the April primary as a springboard for their efforts by culling signatures from registered voters who come and go from the polls. In the end, it comes down to money, manpower and organization, Mr. Craney said.

“Incumbents are very good at survival,” he added, “even when the decks are stacked against them.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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