Let’s review. Chancellor Michelle Rhee negotiated millions of dollars of grants from foundations that were given to the DC Public Schools on the condition that the leadership of DCPS not be changed — in other words, that she remain employed as schools chancellor (themail, April 28). Civic activist Robert Brannum, president of the DC Federation of Civic Associations, believed that it is self-dealing and a conflict of interest for a government official to negotiate grants from foundations to government that are conditional on her continued employment. He filed a complaint with the Office of Campaign Finance, seeking a ruling on the propriety of her actions, and the OCF found sufficient grounds in his complaint to open an investigation.
In response, the Washington Post published an over-the-top, shrill editorial that is nothing but a personal attack on Brannum for daring even to raise a question about Rhee who, it asserts, must not be questioned,http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/07/AR2010060703784.html.
The Post’s editorial board asserted that, “It’s hard to think that anyone could conclude that Ms. Rhee sought these monies to ensure her continued employ [sic] as schools chancellor.” Since the letters of agreement all make the donations conditional on her continued employment, it is hard to think that the editorial board really finds that hard to think. It is much more reasonable to believe that the Post is simply protecting one of its favorites from having to live up to the standards of conduct that it would apply to other public officials. The Post gives Rhee credit for soliciting these funds for DCPS, while at the same time pretending to believe that Rhee had nothing to do with them— with seeking them, with negotiating their terms, or with accepting them under those terms. The Post correctly notes that the foundations’ letters of agreement were not given directly to DCPS, but were in fact given to a nonprofit organization, the DC Public Education Fund, with the express purpose that it would funnel them to DCPS. The DC Public Education Fund was set up by Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee to advance their educational plans and interests and to raise money for their programs. The only purpose of the DC Public Education Fund’s involvement in the grants is to shield DCPS from the legal ramifications of accepting the grants directly and from the open public scrutiny that would ensue. The pretense that the Public Education Fund is independent of DCPS and Rhee, when it operates in their interests and at their direction, may be enough to provide a legal smokescreen to allow Rhee to deny self-dealing, but it is far from clear that that pretense is good enough to succeed. That is a question that can only be answered by the kind of thorough investigation that the Post seeks to discredit in advance.
The Post accuses Brannum of making “half-baked allegations,” and it prejudges the investigation at the end of its editorial by saying that, “it’s disheartening to see this kind of small-minded hounding of those who seek to better reward teachers who do a good job helping children learn. There would seem to be no better way to discourage public service than to turn the District into a place where no good turn goes unquestioned.” That’s bad enough, but in the past three years we’ve become used to the Post’s judgments about local politics being based purely on its being a cheerleader for the Fenty-Rhee-Nickles administration rather than a fair and disinterested observer. What’s worse is thePost’s actions since. After it denied Brannum the opportunity to reply to its editorial, Brannum sent the E-mail printed below. As a result, the Post published (online only, and not linked to from the editorial) the item athttp://voices.washingtonpost.com/local-opinions/2010/06/good_reason_to_investigate_mic.html. The online item purports to be by him, but in fact was drastically rewritten by someone at the newspaper. The paper has so little confidence in its judgment and reasoning that it has denied him an opportunity to reply in print and in his own words to an editorial that attacked him and his motives personally.
Post Declines to Print Editorial Reply
Robert Vinson Brannum, email@example.com
On Tuesday, June 8, The Washington Post published an editorial (“School Daze,” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/07/AR2010060703784.html) reacting to my request for an investigation of DC Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Michelle Rhee. The editorial was critical of me for requesting a DC Office of Campaign Finance investigation of Chancellor Rhee for possible conflict of interest in the tentative contract agreement (later ratified) between DCPS and the Washington Teachers’ Union.
My request for an investigation was not motivated by politics, but rather by a public citizen’s desire to promote a principled public policy, which the Office of Campaign Finance determined to be credible. It was deemed a “cogent statement of facts alleged to constitute a violation,” with a “reasonable cause to believe that a violation has occurred.” Moreover, DC Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, previously praised by the editorial board and others in the media as impeccable, alluded in testimony before the council these private donor funding conditions were unacceptable and he could not certify the tentative agreement.
Most reputable newspaper editorial boards, after singling out someone for editorial rebuke, particularly a private citizen, would print a response. Not so with the new reform-minded editorial board of The Washington Post. The editorial board of The Washington Post not only declined to print an initial response from me, it also has declined to print a shortened rewrite. Rather than permitting me to express my thoughts in my own words, the editorial board offered to print its own shortened rewrite expressing my thoughts of its rebuke of me. I believe I should be able to speak for myself. Even Ms. Katharine Weymouth, Publisher; Mr. Andrew Alexander, Ombudsman; and Mr. Howard Kurtz, Media Critic, should find this refusal unacceptable. [Finished online athttp://www.dcwatch.com/themail/2010/10-06-09.htm#brannum]
Dorothy Brizill, firstname.lastname@example.org
As someone who, over the past twenty years, has closely monitored the work of the DC Board of Elections and Ethics and the Office of Campaign Finance, and who has filed numerous complaints with both bodies, I could not let the current controversy concerning the complaint Robert Brannum filed with the OCF on June 2 regarding School Chancellor Michelle Rhee go by without comment. Bill Turque reported in Tuesday’s Washington Post,http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/07/AR2010060703046.html: “The District’s Office of Campaign Finance will investigate a complaint, filed by an outspoken critic of Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, alleging that Rhee violated the law by soliciting donations from private foundations that reserved the right to pull their funding if there was a change in the school system’s leadership. Cecily E. Collier-Montgomery, the office’s director, told Robert V. Brannum on Friday, in response to his complaint, that there was ‘reasonable cause to believe that a violation has occurred’ and that ‘a full investigation is warranted in this matter.’”
The media response has been troubling. Jonetta Rose Barras wrote in her June 7 column in The Examiner, titled “Slaying the Chancellor, Sacrificing the Children,” http://tinyurl.com/2532rzb, that DC residents should “question the competence” of OCF for investigating Brannum’s complaint. She went on to write that “it’s all politics,” and to argue that Brannum’s complaint aims “to derail Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s reelection, including discrediting his education reform platform and sullying Rhee’s reputation.” JoAnn Armao, in her June 8Washington Post editorial, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/07/AR2010060703784.html, writes, “it’s disheartening to see this kind of small-minded hounding of those who seek to better reward teachers who do a good job helping children learn. There would seem to be no better way to discourage public service than to turn the District into a place where no good turn goes unquestioned.”
Under District law, a citizen has a right to file a complaint with the DC Office of Campaign Finance if and when they believe the District’s campaign finance and/or ethics laws have been violated. After an initial review and inquiry of the complaint, the OCF’s director and general counsel only then make the determination as to whether to launch a formal investigation. Under OCF’s process, frivolous or unfounded complaints do not result in a full investigation. In the past, I have filed complaints involving public officials with the OCF and, indeed, in the past the Washington Post has always welcomed “independent” investigations of public officials by the OCF (especially Marion Barry). I am truly concerned that, if the media chooses to ridicule citizens who file complaints, however motivated or justified those complaints may be, it may have a chilling effect on the willingness of citizens to come forward and report violations of the District’s campaign finance and ethics laws.