Alexandria Police are investigating whether a man arrested Thursday in West Virginia has connections to three high-profile murders in the city, but they are "nowhere close" to declaring him a suspect or person of interest in the cases, spokeswoman Crystal Nosal says.
Charles S. Severance was arrested yesterday in Wheeling, West Virgina on a warrant issued by a Loudoun County judge. He was wanted by police there for possession of a weapon by a felon. Although Alexandria authorities insist Severance, 53, is not being accused of the homicides, his photograph shows similarities to a suspect sketch released after the February 6 death of music teacher Ruthanne Lodato, who was killed when a gunman knocked on her door and opened fire when she answered.
Lodato’s death was comparable to deaths of Ron Kirby, the director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, who was gunned down in his home last November, and Nancy Dunning, the wife of former Alexandria Sheriff Jim Dunning, who was shot dead in her home in 2003.
Alexandria Police Chief Earl Cook said March 6 that bullet fragments found at all three crime scenes featured enough similarities that the homicides would start being investigated for connections to each other.
“The cases appear to be linked, but until we have evidence to point to only one suspect, we investigate all possibilities,” Cook said at the time.
Severance spent 10 days in jail on a 1997 gun charge and was arrested in 2005 for carrying a concealed weapon, according to WRC. Virginia and federal law prohibit convicted felons from possessing gun. He is being held on $100,000 bond at the West Virginia Northern Regional Jail outside Wheeling while Loudoun County authorities extradite him on the possession charge.
He has connections to Alexandria, too, having run for mayor unsuccessfully in 1996 and 2000.
Finding the winners in Jeffrey Thompson’s plea deal is not easy: In court this week, Thompson pleaded guilty to a rash of 2010 campaign-finance violations that implicated, by description if not by name, everyone from DC mayor (and mayoral candidate) Vincent Gray to bit players in Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential run. The losers—including Vince Gray, Michael Brown, who comes off as the slimiest politician we have, and the voters—are easier to figure. A roundup of who gains:
He admitted corrupting the 2010 mayoral race with $660,000 in dirty cash and secretly contributing more than $3 million to two dozen local and federal campaigns between 2006 and 2012, but he cut a sweet deal with federal prosecutors. In return for ratting out Mayor Gray and fingering other DC politicians, Thompson will likely never serve a day behind bars. Prosecutors waived the 18 months he might have served on the federal charges, and odds are he gets house arrest for the six-month term on the DC charges. Thompson’s goal was never to set foot in jail, and he might have nailed it.
The US Attorney finally implicated Gray in his three-year probe into corrupt DC elections. In Thompson, Machen has notched his eighth public-corruption plea from District probes, taking out three DC Council members and four Gray campaign aides. But for Machen to score a true victory, he and his investigators have to build a case based on documents and evidence that will force Gray to accept a plea.
“Anyone but Gray”
Democratic candidates for Gray’s office have already been all but sporting “Not the mayor” campaign buttons. Though Gray is not out of the race, and still has high approval ratings, his support in African-American wards east of the Anacostia River is eroding. Undecided voters will be looking for a new favorite among the leading alternatives: Muriel Bowser, Jack Evans, and Tommy Wells.
David Catania goes all in by declaring his candidacy as an Independent running in the general election. After a Democratic primary season that lacked leadership, inspiration, and issues, the at-large council member could bring all three to the November vote, the first truly competitive general election under Home Rule. He has the best chance of beating Gray one-on-one.
The Washington Post
Jo-Ann Armao and her editorial page look smart in their crusade against Gray. After Machen tied Gray to the corrupt cash, Armao pounded Gray with caustic editorials for three days. But will the Post’s diatribes and endorsement of Bowser knock off the mayor and make her the Democratic nominee? If not, the Post will look weak and ineffectual.
If Machen builds a stronger case in the next nine months, Gray might be forced to resign. Under DC laws of succession, that would make council chair Phil Mendelson DC’s first white mayor, temporarily.
The US Capitol has very strict rules against commercial movie and television production on its grounds, making the already-difficult process of filming here that much trickier by limiting camera crews to Union Square on the west side of the complex. But Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s delegate in the House, introduced a bill yesterday that would open the entire 290-acre Capitol campus in hopes of getting more films and TV shows about Washington to actually shoot here.
Norton has been scratching at the issue since late 2011, when jursidiction over Union Square transferred from the National Park Service to the Architect of the Capitol, which has a longstanding ban on commercial, non-news filming. Norton’s office managed to secure an exemption for Union Square after the changeover, but it still limits productions that want exterior shots of the Capitol to a single vantage point.
Norton’s bill only applies to exterior scenes, but in a statement from her office, she says the current restrictions don’t just crimp movie productions, they also trample on free speech.
“In today’s world, where many societies are facing upheavals, our country, with an exemplary model of democracy, should be the first to encourage commercial photography and filming to record various scenes of the legislature, which symbolizes U.S. democracy at work,” she says. “Limiting commercial filming and photography of the Capitol, an important vehicle for telling the nation’s story, does not serve the American people.”
Norton also says her bill would give an economic boost to the District, which struggles to attract film sustained production without a financial incentive program that other cities and states offer. Tax credits and rebates are one of the main reasons shows like House of Cards and Veep film in Maryland, which has given those two shows tens of millions of dollars since they started production.
Leslie Green, a spokeswoman for the District’s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, says her agency is “thrilled” to see Norton try to open more of the Capitol to movie crews. But while Hollywood productions would surely enjoy greater access to the Capitol grounds, Green’s office does sometimes facilitate shots of the Capitol dome from non-federal territory, such as a view down North Capitol St. that features in House of Cards’s credit sequence.
As I mentioned in last week's Top 10 Books for March 2014 post, we live in the nation's most literate place. It stands to reason that we also have loads of great literary happenings, and while I can't attend them all, I do try to get to several each month, and pay attention to those I miss. Each month I'll try to bring you an update on what I've seen, tidbits from events I've heard about, and info on what I think you might want to put on your calendars for the next week or two.
On Tuesday, March 4, I attended a party in honor of Myra MacPherson's book launch at The Cosmos Club. MacPherson, formerly a Washington Post political reporter who lives in Miami, was just trying to get a drink at the Club bar when I accosted her for a brief pre-party interview about The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age. (NB: The book, a lively and heretofore untold account of sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennie Claflin, received a terrifc revew in the Post.) We talked about her scandalous subjects, siblings who became the first women traders on Wall Street and refused to live by the very restrictive rules for 19th-century ladies. "People didn't know what to make of them," said MacPherson. "They went from capitalists [as traders] to communists [as activists], and when people would ask them how they reconciled the two, they would say 'We needed the money to support our work!'" One of the most important points MacPherson has to make is that things haven't really changed all that much: "It's always very hard for political women. Always. Maybe even more so today."
Women were also center stage at the Politics & Prose event for I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories from the Edge of 50 by Annabelle Gurwitch, interviewed by her DC-resident pal and fellow author Barbara Ehrenreich. Far more men than anyone might anticipated joined the crowd! Annabelle and Barbara began by recounting how they met (which was in DC) and quickly went on to compare compressions stockings to Spanx, whether to attend a concert with a teenager, and the invisibility of the parental set, and on to more serious subjects like breast cancer. Take a look at Gurwitch's book trailer--even if you're not on the edge of 50, you'll recognize some of the ways in which we all categorize the people in our lives.
While the weather outside continues to be frightful, a spring-themed cocktail gathering is always delightful--and sometimes it works out in the oddest ways. DC-based literary agency RossYoon is known for throwing great parties around this time of the year, and Thursday's, held at Hogo Bar, was in keeping with that tradition. [Full Disclosure: Howard Yoon is my agent.] In the course of the evening, I met and chatted for a while with a really interesting author, Adele Levine, whose memoir Run, Don't Walk: The Curious and Chaotic Life of a Physical Therapist Inside Walter Reed Medical Center will be published by Avery/Penguin next month (more on her book then, I promise!). As I joked to various attendees, one of the best parts of the evenings for me was the on-street parking spot I nabbed right in front of the bar. But Adele's evening took a more intriguing turn when she walked out and saw her bicycle chained to a street sign there, too. The surprise? Her bike had been stolen last August.
Mayor Vince Gray’s campaign manager and self-declared election cop Chuck Thies has a new demand for the District’s mayoral election: No more nicknames. Thies is apparently sick of being asked about “Uncle Earl,” a name that prosecutors allege Mayor Vince Gray called businessman Jeffrey Thompson in order to keep his 2010 support Gray under wraps and that the mayor himself admits he used.
“When did using a nickname become evidence of breaking the law?” he says. “It’s a made-for-Twitter moment brought to you by Jeff Thompson.”
Thompson revealed the soubriquet on Monday when he pleaded guilty to hatching multiple election fraud schemes, including a 2010 plot in which he spent $668,800 to elect Gray without reporting a cent of it to campaign finance authorities. Sure enough, a fictional @UncleEarlDC Twitter account started up on Monday before Thompson even finished entering his plea, and some of Gray’s competitors in the April 1 Democratic primary are now using Thompson’s alias to attack the mayor.
In making their accusation that Gray had direct involvement in the “shadow campaign,” federal prosecutors at Thompson’s hearing said Gray and Thompson had dinner in August 2010, with Gray presenting Thompson with a $425,000 budget for get-out-the-vote operations ahead of his showdown with then-Mayor Adrian Fenty. According to prosecutors, Gray ended the conversation by saying, “Thank you, uncle.”
According to Thompson’s statement of offense, Gray and his campaign associates agreed to call Thompson “Uncle Earl”—Earl is Thompson’s middle name—to avoid publicizing his support for Gray’s mayoral bid.
Gray has not been charged with any wrongdoing, but in an interview he gave shortly after Thompson pleaded guilty, the mayor said he called the businessman by the name.
“I thought it was because of him not wanting to be seen as legitimately raising money for my campaign,” Gray told WRC reporter Tom Sherwood. “That’s true. But there was never any illicit secrecy associated with that.”
However, Thies says the Uncle Earl mania is setting a dangerous precedent. In fact, Thies suggests DC politicians and their associates only use proper names going forward.
“I’m afraid to use nicknames,” says the seasoned political operative, whose legal name is Charles Thies, Jr. “My mother is complicit in a crime because she’s been calling me Chuck for 49 years? Good lord.”
The District has one of the highest levels of income inequality of any major US city, according to a new analysis of Census Bureau data comparing the top 5 percent of earners to the bottom 20 percent across 50 cities. Only Atlanta, Boston, and Miami have greater wealth disparities, a report released today by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute states.
In DC, the average household income for the top 5 percent is nearly 54 times as large as it is for the bottom quintile, the data show. People at the top here earn an average of $531,769 a year in 2012, higher than any other city measured, including New York and Los Angeles. The national average income for the highest-earning 5 percent is $305,552.
Meanwhile the average income for the bottom 20 percent in DC is just $9,877 annually. While that’s roughly even with the national average for the first quintile of workers, the sum covers just 12 percent of the $85,019 that DCFPI estimates is needed per year for a parent with two children to cover the most basic costs of food, housing, transportation, and child care. Only in eight cities does the average income of someone in the bottom 20 percent cover a smaller percentage of a basic family budget, the institute says.
The study gives a lot of credit to the District’s recent economic growth and, unlike many fiscal studies that compare DC to the states, actually weighs it against other cities. But it warns that as much as the city enjoys its current prosperity, it should be taking steps to ease the burden placed on the bottom bracket of earners.
“Income inequality in the District is significantly larger when compared to other cities and has remained that way over the last six years,” the report concludes. “Expanding the supply of affordable housing stock, better access to subsidized health insurance, and other supports for low-income residents will help alleviate the high costs associated with living in a large city and help preserve the economic diversity of DC.”
Malaysian authorities control the often loopy, contradictory, and frustrating investigation into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. But since the plane vanished on March 8 with 239 people on board, US government experts on topics from transportation to terrorism have headed to Southeast Asia to assist with the search. Even those here at home are watching closely, shown Thursday afternoon when White House Press Secretary Jay Carney confirmed a report that the search may be expanded to the Indian Ocean.
The agencies most closely involved:
- The National Transportation Safety Board sent three investigators to help with the probe soon after the plane was reported missing. NTSB is responsible for investigating every US civil aviation accident, but as it’s the considered the top crash-investigation agency in the world, it often offers assistance to other countries.
- The Federal Aviation Administration sent two technical experts and a regional representative to Kuala Lumpur, mostly as support for the NTSB team, according to a spokesperson. But the FAA has a particular interest because the missing aircraft is an American-made Boeing, whose large government operations office in Arlington is likely working hard this week. (Coincidentally the agency issued a directive last week pertaining to potential corrosion and cracks on the 777, though no one has connected the directive to the disappearance.)
- The FBI can respond whenever Americans are aboard a downed flight. In this case, the FBI Legal Attachés based in Kuala Lumpur are “cooperating closely with their counterparts,” according to the State Department. An FBI spokesperson said the bureau is ready to provide more assistance if requested by the Malaysian government.
- The US Navy’s office of the Chief of Naval Operations has deployed the USS Kidd from the Gulf of Thailand to the Strait of Malacca; it is expected to arrive on Saturday. Two aircraft, a P-8A Poseiden and a P-3C Orion, have also been sent to help in the search. The P-8 typically flies below 10,000 feet at 350 knots and can search for up to nine hours, depending on how remote the search area is, according to the Navy Office of Information.
- The Malaysian government has invited experts from the State Department to work on the case, and spokesperson Peter Velasco said the US embassies in Kuala Lumpur and Beijing have been keeping in touch with families of the American citizens aboard the flight.
The Smithsonian announced on Monday that Cornell University President David Skorton will take over the sprawling national research institution next year, replacing retiring Secretary of the Smithsonian G. Wayne Clough. Skorton, a cardiologist by training, will be the first medical doctor to lead the Smithsonian. As a jazz musician—he once accompanied Billy Joel on flute on “She’s Always a Woman” on a Cornell stage—he is just as interested in the institution’s cultural functions as he is in its scientific missions.
Skorton has been the president of Cornell since 2006, following a three-year stint as president of the University of Iowa, where he also taught for 26 years. In his first one-on-one interview since accepting his new job, Skorton tells Washingtonian about his impending move to the nation’s capital, his goals for exercising the Smithsonian’s cultural clout, and his favorite Smithsonian spots, though he hopes his future colleagues, the museum directors, don’t take it personally.
One of the first things people here noticed is that you’re a sometime jazz musician who played with Billy Joel. The Smithsonian’s got a lot of venues, are you going to be able to get Billy Joel to play at one of them?
That’s hilarious. Billy Joel must have lost my cell-phone number. After our performance—which was really just me sitting in on one number—his people never called me to go on tour. On the other hand, I learned that the Smithsonian has its own jazz orchestra.
Are you going to sit in with them?
Well, it wouldn’t be my decision, but if they asked me, I’d at least be there to cheer them on.
For most of your career you’ve been in Iowa City and Ithaca, New York. Are you looking forward to coming to a bigger city?
My wife and I split our time between Ithaca and New York City, though mostly in Ithaca. Cornell has a lot of footprints in Manhattan like the medical college. I’ve gotten a taste of the best of both worlds. A college town with that special culture and somewhat of a medium-size town feel on the one hand, and the attraction and joys of the city on the other.
I’ve also had the privilege of going to Washington many, many times, to Capitol Hill, to the National Institutes of Health, to the American College of Cardiology. I’ve seen from an inexpert perspective the Washington area change and evolve. It’s always been an exciting place to visit. It looks to me it’s an even more exciting place to live—exciting cultural scene, restaurant scene. For decades, I’ve been going to Blues Alley whenever I could spare the time, and now there are other music venues in other parts of the city.
Your name came to the Smithsonian from a head-hunting firm. What got you interested in the job?
Some attributes of the Smithsonian are quite similar to a research university. Both institutions have a lot of creative activity, whether its scientific research or things related to history or arts. Both institutions do education. At the university, it leads to a degree. At the Smithsonian, I’ve seen the literature describing it as “informal education.”
I’ve always been oriented toward public engagement. I worked in the public sector my whole career until the time I came to Cornell. The Smithonian is an enormous public interface. And thanks to Wayne Clough, and his colleagues, that interface has been hugely multiplied by the use of the Internet. As great as it is to be on the Mall, it’s also great to look at these artifacts, objects, and exhibitions online, and now with the 3-D project.
Is there any goal you have in mind for your leadership of the Smithsonian?
I’m just beginning the formal learning curve, but I do have two overarching ideas I’d like to share. I think most people not involved with the Smithsonian—and I put myself in that category right now—think about the museums and the galleries and the zoo and the website and the magazines as the Smithsonian, and tend not think about the people behind the scenes who are doing the research—the Tropical Research Institute, the Observatory Project, the curators and conservators who are behind the scenes. I hope to be able to shine a light on them, partly for recognition, and partly so they can express their own thought leadership, to use a cliche.
Broader than that, I hope the Smithsonian’s large presence in Washington will be translatable to a convening power. [I hope] the other cultural institutions in Washington can somehow come together as leaders and get the message across that the country needs to focus on a broad sweep of considerations, in education and in solving its thorniest problems.
You said you believe there’s too much of a focus on the STEM fields.
Of course you have to have an emphasis on math and science, and that’s been my whole career. But if you do that alone, without thinking about the detailed aspects of ethics and history and culture, things just don’t go as well as they might. And I think that’s true in a lot of endeavors. When we talk about winning the hearts and minds of people outside the United States, whether they are friends or people with whom we have challenging relationships, it’s understanding culture that makes the difference.
Is there a museum or exhibit you’re particularly drawn to, either as a tourist or scientist?
Over the decades, if I don’t have a lot of time, I’ve tended to go to the Sackler and Freer. I’ve had the privilege of working with colleagues in many parts of Asia over my higher-ed career and developed an interest in Asian art.
Having said that, my very first exposure, when I was a kid, was to the Natural History Museum, and Air and Space is close to my heart in part because Cornell was one of the leaders of the Mars Rover project. I like all those places, but if you really push me, I’ll say my favorite is the Sackler-Freer. But maybe you don’t have to let the other directors know.
The Current, a chain of community weeklies distributed to more than 50,000 readers in Northwest DC, walked back its endorsement of Mayor Vince Gray in the April 1 Democratic primary over allegations read in federal court this week that Gray had direct knowledge of the $668,800 “shadow campaign" waged on his behalf in 2010.
Just a week after the papers backed Gray for a second term based on his record of ther last three years, the Current says the guilty plea Monday by shadow campaign financier Jeffrey Thompson has forced it to “rethink our mayoral endorsement.”
“We are now less certain about Mr. Gray’s innocence,” reads today’s editorial, which is being delivered to the Current’s subscribers. “Our mayor should be above reproach. Accordingly, we must retract our endorsement of Vincent Gray for the Democratic mayoral nomination.”
Also running in this week’s Current newspapers is a display ad from Gray, but the mayor’s campaign manager, Chuck Thies, says it’ll be the last bit of advertising the Current gets from the mayor’s re-election effort. Gray’s campaign reported spending about $4,500 on advertising in the Current during the most recent campaign finance reporting period, but Thies says he is canceling the last $2,000 worth.
“The Current today chose to replace its spine with a wet noodle,” Thies tells Washingtonian. “You'd think a newspaper would make its decision based on fact. The current seems to put credibility behind the words of an admitted felon.”
Legal developments can really change a political operative's outlook. Just last week, when the Current went in for Gray, Thies called it a "big" endorsement from a publication with a "strong track record of picking winners."
Since Thompson’s hearing, Thies and Gray have been attempting to reframe the mayoral election as a choice between Gray and the information Thompson gave to prosecutors as part of his plea agreement. “Until three days ago, Jeff Thompson’s word was mud,” Thies says. “The mastermind of a criminal conspiracy to subvert elections.”
The Current says it will endorse a different candidate in the “near future.” Early voting in the primary election begins next Monday, and there are only two issues left between today and April 1.
DC Council member David Catania doesn’t think being a white, non-Democrat will dissuade people from voting for him for mayor in this years general election, he said after filing his candidacy for an independent bid.
“This is a city that belives in the value of opportunity, a strong sense of fairness, and playing by the rules,” Catania said. “These are the values we all share.”
Eight Democratic candidates, including Mayor Vince Gray, are scrambling toward the April 1 Democratic primary, which in past years has served as the effective general election. But with another seven months until the real general election and more than 15 years as an at-large member of the Council, Catania’s entry into the race raises the possibility of giving DC its first competitive mayoral general election in 20 years.
“The others have talked a good game and good for them for having labels, but I’ve actually delivered,” Catania said about the Democratic field. Catania is a former Republican who left the party in 2004 over President George W. Bush’s support for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
During his tenure on the DC Council, Catania has run the committees overseeing the District’s health services and, since last year, its public schools. A video released by his campaign Wednesday morning highlights his involvment in keeping United Hospital Center, the city’s only hospital east of the Anacostia River, open. He told reporters that his school oversight played a major role in pushing him into the race.
“It was an incredibly important factor,” he said. “It inspired seven or eight landmark pieces of legislation. If we’re electing leaders, rather than administrators, I think it’s time for people to look at the record.”
Catania repeatedly referred to Gray as an “administrator” instead of a leader, arguing that Gray inherited an improving city from former mayors Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty. That’s a charge Gray attempted to fend off last night in his State of the District address, but Catania, addressing reporters at the corner of 14th and U streets, NW, near several new high-end apartment buildings, said it fits.
“I think our city is growing in spite of the mayor, not because of the mayor,” he said. “The mayor has tended a garden that was planted by those before him. I don’t think any of these cranes are traced to the work of Vincent Gray.”
Catania, who created an exploratory committee in December, added that he made his decision to officially enter the race before Monday, when businessman Jeffrey Thompson pleaded guilty to financing a $668,800 “shadow campaign” on Gray’s behalf in 2010 and prosecutors alleged that Gray had direct involvement in the scheme.
“I’ve made my feelings known about the mayor’s shadow campaign when it was first disclosed two years ago,” Catania said. “I said he should have resigned then and I believe that today.”
A January poll taken by the Washington Post showed that in a hypothetical matchup, Gray had a slim lead over Catania.
Catania acknowledged taking money from Thompson in some of his Council races, but the two had a falling out after 2006 over city payments to Chartered Health Plan, a Thompson-owned firm that formerly handled DC’s $300 million Medicaid contract. But Catania has his own history with the city’s contracting process. Until January 2013, he had a job with the technology consulting firm MC Dean, which is one of the District government’s biggest contractors. Catania said his role with the firm focused mostly on its contracts with the Defense Department, and that he always recused himself when a city contract with MC Dean came before the Council.
“If anyone can ever find an example of where I voted to advance MC Dean or had a communication with anyone in the District government that advanced MC Dean, I’ll drop out of this race tomorrow,” Catania said. “But you’re not going to find it because it never happened.”
Catania also addressed his sometimes prickly relationships with his fellow Council members. In 2012, for instance, he got in an argument with Marion Barry that heated to the point where Catania told the mayor-for-life, “Fuck you, Marion.”
“We’re not cutting the crusts off cucumber sandwiches,” Catania told reporters. “This is about running a $12 billion organization, where the lives of 645,000 people depend on someone being honest and being faithflu to those values and visions. I’m not going to apologize for the passion I take to this job. I feel most of our citizens are outraged.”