The D.C. Council has tapped Robert Bennett of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, veteran of many highly political cases, to investigate whether Councilman Marion Barry (Ward 8) violated ethics rules when he hired his then-girlfriend Donna Watts-Brighthaupt as a contractor in his office in October.
During a spirited press conference this evening, from which two council members walked out, Council Chairman Vincent Gray said he will introduce a resolution on Monday to officially hire Bennett and lay out the scope of his investigation. Gray said the investigation was sparked by the Watts-Brighthaupt contract, but he would not rule out the possibility that other contracts issued by Barry and three other council members might also be looked at.
Gray mentioned 11 contracts, mostly for information technology work for specific committee Web sites and similar projects. He said that, in addition to Barry, council members Kwame Brown (At large), Michael Brown (At large), and Jim Graham (Ward 1) have issued contracts.
According to Gray, Barry had the largest contract, hiring a media relations professional for $22,500. So far, Watts-Brighthaupt has been paid $15,000 to focus (according to Barry) on poverty issues.
Bennett, who will work for the council on a pro bono basis, is no stranger to high-profile controversies. He was President Bill Clinton’s personal attorney in the Paula Jones case, and he represented then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller in the CIA leak investigation. He has also served as special counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics in several major investigations.
At the press conference, Bennett said he plans to put together a team of three or four lawyers for the investigation "as soon as [he] sees the resolution and the contracts." Robyn Carr, a Skadden associate, joined him at the conference, and he said she will be working on the investigation.
Bennett said it was too early to say how long the investigation might take. "But you'll find that when someone is working pro bono, they tend to move much more quickly," he joked.
Gray, who said he knew Bennett, explained that he asked Bennett to conduct the investigation based on his "sterling reputation and impeccable credentials." Gray added that Bennett will have subpoena power during the investigation.
Barry, who also attended the press conference at the John A. Wilson Building, said he plans to fully cooperate with the investigation.
Barry limited his comments to a brief statement. In that statement, he said, "When Mr. Bennett finishes his investigation, he will find that [Watts-Brighthaupt's] qualifications exceed the requirements, and the work product exceeds the $15,000 she was paid."
Barry added, "I also want to say I believe in innocent until proven guilty." At those words, Councilman David Catania (At large) said, "I can't take any more of this," and walked out. Councilwoman Mary Cheh (Ward 3) followed.
According to Gray, a review of how the council issues contracts was already being considered, but it was pushed to the forefront by the recent controversy. Gray said he plans to have the council put together a new code of ethics regarding contracts by the start of the next fiscal year.