Touched by a Judge
No jail time. No requirement that he resign from office. No fine. Not even a lecture from the judge. Not even a pro forma pronouncement that Marion Barry had disgraced his office, disrespected his constituents and ripped off the taxpayers.
No, Marion Barry walked out of the U.S. District Courthouse in Washington this morning so relieved that when reporters asked him if he was surprised to get off with probation, he flashed a huge smile, laughed, and said, "I was pleased."
To the glee of his entourage, Barry got off with probation after his conviction for having failed to file federal and D.C. income tax returns from 1999 to 2004.
Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson ordered that Barry pay the $195,000, plus penalties and interest, that he owes to the feds and the $51,000 he owes to the District, but even that number will likely fall dramatically, because, as Barry made a point of telling the judge, he plans to file amended returns and negotiate deals with the IRS and the city.
It is very, very nice to be powerful and important.
The shame of this case stretches from one end of the courtroom to the other:
The judge was so eager to let Barry off with probation that she three times interrupted the lawyers this morning to seek assurances that the prosecutors wouldn't object to such a light sentence. The judge couldn't be bothered even with the ritual tonguelashing that might have shown Barry that the court believes in equal justice for all. In fact, Barry was so confident that he had this one in the bag that he began his remarks to Judge Robinson by thanking her for her fairness. "It's sort of reaffirmed my sense of justice in this country," Barry said, and then he immediately slapped the court with a smart remark about how he doesn't usually find justice in America.
Barry was unusually contrite and self-effacing in his extended remarks to the court. He not only admitted what he'd done and said that there was no excuse for anyone not to file tax returns, but he also made the most frank and forthright admission of his addiction that he's ever given in public. "I take full responsibility," he said repeatedly. "I've been embarrassed. I've also embarrassed the citizens of our city and the citizens of this country. To the citizens of the District of Columbia, I apologize. I'm deeply sorry."
Barry's voice crept so low that the judge at one point had to reach over and turn up the volume on his microphone.
But Barry couldn't leave his apology at that. Instead, he lectured the judge on faith and redemption. "I'm a Christian person who believes in redemption, who believes in forgiveness," he said. "I ask for forgiveness from this court and this community. I have suffered a lot of emotional feelings from this....I ask this court to take all this in context."
And that context, the council member from Ward 8 said, was that he is a recovering addict. "You know the seriousness of addiction, this disease," he said. "It's tough, it's baffling. It defies all logic as to why this happens." Barry said that "90 to 95 percent of people fall off the wagon, as we call it." But he said the solution "is not too hard to figure out: Strong belief in God, don't associate with people who are involved in this kind of activity, go to meetings."
Barry, on a roll, made the same pitch to the judge that he's made for many years, that whatever his personal foibles and misdeeds, he's never neglected his work for the people. "I wouldn't let anything get in the way of my work for this city. My work has not suffered. I've suffered personally...."
And, amazingly, the judge bought it.
But the worst offender here is neither Barry nor the judge. The award for most egregiously two-faced performance in this case goes to the federal prosecutors who had the audacity to come into court today, rip Barry for violating the spirit of the plea agreement that bought him probation, catalogue Barry's flagrant disrespect for the court and the system, compare Barry's cockiness to the earnest efforts of ordinary citizens trying to make ends meet--and then turn around and give a nice big old wink to a comfy deal for the ex-mayor.
Prosecutor James Cooper was persuasive in his comments to the judge about how Barry has repeatedly violated the spirit of his agreement with the government, failing to arrange to pay his debts to the IRS and D.C.
"Frankly, your honor, given the lack of vigor Mr. Barry has demonstrated..., we're not confident about what Mr. Barry is going to do going forward," Cooper said. "Mr. Barry has been, for want of a better word, recalcitrant in taking advantage of a very reasonable agreement. What this case is about and always has been about is a failure of personal and public responsibility."
But the ultimate failure of public responsibility came minutes later, when Cooper repeatedly declined the judge's invitations to scrap the plea agreement and seek something more serious than probation for Barry.
Instead, Cooper delivered a self-serving little speech about how there are good people all across the District who struggle to make ends meet and still fulfill their obligations to the tax man. "It frankly is an insult to those people that a sitting public official has behaved as he has," Cooper said of Barry. "These are serious offenses. The court should ensure that Mr. Barry is held responsible."
But the judge was happy to rely on the prosecutor's failure to seek a tougher penalty, and the prosecutor was unwilling to back up his tough words with any action that might displease Barry. Result: Barry walks away smiling and laughing. (You can watch him here.)
By Marc Fisher |
March 9, 2006; 3:14 PM ET
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