WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — Former District of Columbia Councilmember Michael A. Brown was charged with bribery Friday as part of an undercover FBI operation and plans to plead guilty, the latest stain on a city government already reeling from multiple corruption investigations.
Federal prosecutors accuse Brown of accepting $55,000 in cash payments, between July 2012 and last March, from undercover agents posing as businessmen seeking preferential government treatment for their company. The bribery reflects a “lapse in judgment at a time when he faced severe financial difficulties,” and Brown has apologized to family and friends and is asking constituents for forgiveness, his lawyer said Friday.
The criminal charge comes two months after Brown abruptly abandoned a race for an open at-large Council seat, citing unspecified personal and family matters that he said required his immediate attention.
Prosecutors filed a three-page criminal information against Brown, a charging document that can only be filed with a defendant’s consent and generally indicates that a plea agreement has been reached. He was expected to enter his plea Monday.
The single count of bribery carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years, though Brown is likely to receive leniency for pleading guilty. The government is also demanding that Brown forfeit the money he illegally received. A plea hearing is set for Monday.
His attorney says Brown has accepted responsibility and has apologized to friends and family.
“He has accepted full responsibility for his mistakes, cooperated with the authorities, and intends to plead guilty to the information filed today,” lawyer Brian Heberlig said in a statement.
Robert Brannum, a friend, said Brown told associates in phone conversations Thursday night that he did not think that he had broken the law or had engaged in a quid-pro-quo arrangement with the undercover agents, but felt the need to take responsibility and avoid the uncertainty of a jury trial.
“A trial would be too risky, the penalty would be too high,” Brannum said, adding, “He simply said he was taking responsibility for his actions and would take some medicine.”
Brown, the son of the late former Commerce secretary Ron Brown, was elected to the Council in 2008 and was seen by many as a rising star in D.C. politics. But he lost his bid for a second term last November following a nightmarish campaign season in which he revealed that more than $113,000 had gone missing from his campaign account earlier in the summer. His opponent, David Grosso, hammered Brown for his personal financial problems, calling him unfit to serve because of his failure to pay his taxes, mortgage and rent on time. Grosso declined to comment, his spokeswoman said.
Prosecutors say the bribes came from undercover agents posing as representatives from a company, identified in court papers as Company M, which sought approval for a government program that awards preferential contracting and procurement treatment to select firms. Brown “corruptly demanded, sought, received, accepted, and agreed to receive and accept things of value personally” from the company representatives, court papers allege.
His expected guilty plea follows the convictions of ex-Council Chairman Kwame Brown, who admitted to federal bank fraud last June, and Harry Thomas Jr., who is imprisoned for embezzling government funds earmarked for youth sports programs. Federal prosecutors have also been investigating the 2010 campaign of Mayor Vincent Gray and the awarding of the local government’s lottery contract.
Former mayor and current D.C. Councilmember Marion Barry also may have violated the council’s ethics rules for reportedly receiving thousands of dollars in gifts from two construction firms that do business with the city.
The 13-member council serves the functions of a state, county and municipal legislature.
Current Council Chairman Phil Mendelson called news of the plea “disturbing and unfortunate” and said the government had failed to live up to the public’s expectations.
“Once again the Council, which has striven for a year to regain stability, is damaged by the specter of continuing corruption,” he said in a written statement. “It is my hope that those of us who have been elected to serve will see the news of Mr. Brown’s plea as stimulus to redouble our efforts to improve ethics and regain the public’s trust.”
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