Kojo Nnamdi’s Disappointing Turn as an Apologist

An essay in the “Washington Post” resorted to convenient explanations for DC’s corrupt politicians.

By: Harry Jaffe

Kojo, Kojo, Kojo—how could you?

As you told us in your long essay in the Washington Post’s Sunday Outlook session, you have been covering the District as a journalist or talk show host for the past 40 years. You have interviewed every politician and business figure. You have hosted town hall meetings across the nation’s capital. Kojo Nnamdi is one of the strongest brands in DC.

Given the opportunity to explain the roots of the current wave of corruption polluting District politics, you punted. You took the path of least resistance, parroted the convenient explanation, avoided the painful judgments.

You became an apologist.

What caused the recent downfall of council member Harry Thomas Jr. and chairman Kwame Brown? Why have three top aides to Mayor Vincent Gray’s 2010 campaign accepted guilty pleas for breaking federal laws? How do we get our heads around the discovery of a an illegal, off-the-books “shadow campaign” that dumped $653,000 in dirty money into Gray’s campaign?

“We’re still on a learning curve,” you wrote, “so campaigns in this town tend to have all kinds of openings that invite skulduggery.”

Apology number one: The system did it. Check.

The reason that a few of Gray’s mayoral aides spent the first weeks of the new administration installing their friends and family into sweet government gigs? “The fact that they didn’t allow a reasonable amount of time to elapse before undertaking these activities is another indication of their lack of experience.”

Apology number two: Gray’s inside cronies didn’t know they should have waited a month or so before doling out plum jobs, including one for Sulaimon Brown, whose charges of being paid off to harass Adrian Fenty triggered the current investigation.

And, finally, Kojo’s overarching whitewash goes like this: “We don’t have statehood or voting rights in Congress, which means there is limited political space in the District.”

Apology number three: If there were more elective offices—two US Senate seats, for example—we would get a better crop of potential politicians.

This hasn’t worked too well in Providence. Aspiring politicians can vie for state or federal office in Rhode Island. Mayor Buddy Cianci chose to top out in Providence, where he ran afoul of federal law and was forced to resign twice, the second time for racketeering.

Expanding opportunities didn’t stop former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick from overseeing a scandal-plagued administration. Federal prosecutors charged him with ten felony counts and forced him to resign.

Rod “Blago” Blagojevich could be Kojo’s poster child for climbing the political ladder. He served as a state legislator in Illinois plus two terms in the US House of Representatives. He parlayed that into two terms as Illinois governor. But Blago was corrupt. Investigators discovered he was trying to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat. He was impeached in January 2009 and jailed shortly after.

No, Kojo—more elective opportunities do not guarantee clean public officials.

When it comes to getting elected to one of the 13 seats on the DC City Council, the rewards themselves should be enough to attract decent, uncorrupt citizens and keep them on the job. The salary for 12 ward and at-large members is $125,000 a year—for a part-time job. Along with the sweet salary, council members get free office space on Pennsylvania Avenue, around the corner from the White House. Their jobs come with staff for their personal office and their committees, amounting to about a dozen aides. The cost to the council member? Zero. We taxpayers foot the bills for the office space and the staffers.

Such a sweet deal should be enough to attract good candidates and keep them focused on the job at hand, rather than higher office.

So, Kojo, to what can we attribute the corrupt acts we are sadly witnessing? The system is fine. It’s the people who are corrupt. Harry Thomas Jr. stole money from a public trust fund devoted to training poor kids to play sports. He used the purloined money to buy fancy cars and a motorcycle.

Vince Gray’s campaign aides slipped cash and money orders to Sulaimon Brown so he would berate Adrian Fenty in public forums. They broke the law.

Now we are finding out that a whole crowd of DC residents took part in a massive conspiracy to collect, launder, and apply $653,000 to help Gray beat Fenty—all of it off the books.

No, Kojo, the system works fine. US Attorney Ronald Machen and his investigators are gathering evidence and knocking off the corrupt individuals one by one.

People are corrupt. The system is fine. Once people vulnerable to corrupt acts realize they will be caught and punished, perhaps they will choose to not break the law. Or perhaps they won’t.

Apologists gloss over that essential, personal choice.