News Elicits Sadness, Not Shock
Responses Mixed on Barry Drug Test
By Eric M. Weiss and Robert E. Pierre
The news that D.C. Council member Marion Barry failed a court-ordered drug test in the fall drew sighs, prayers and a call for him to take a leave from his council seat. But at his old haunts and among his constituents, what was missing yesterday was a sense of surprise.
For many, this is the fourth decade of the sometimes rocky, sometimes inspiring marriage between Barry, the former four-term mayor who now represents Ward 8 on the council, and the residents of his adopted city. If there was one feeling, it was an amalgam of sadness, empathy and deja vu.
"I just think it's a damn shame," said Addie Cook, who had been among the Union Temple Baptist Church members who welcomed him back after he served six months for cocaine possession following his 1990 arrest at the Vista Hotel, where he was videotaped smoking crack.
Sources said Barry tested positive for cocaine during routine screening in connection with his guilty plea to two misdemeanor tax charges in October.
Yesterday, Barry held a news conference as he was being discharged from Howard University Hospital but would not discuss the drug test. During his two-day hospital stay, he was treated for diabetes and hypertension, said his doctor, Robert H. Williams, who appeared at Barry's side. The 69-year-old former mayor and civil rights leader is also a cancer survivor.
When asked whether Barry's condition was affected by the presence of any illegal drugs, Williams said: "I know nothing about that. I've told you what we treated him for, and that is a fact. We treated him for those two conditions and those conditions only."
Barry, wearing a black overcoat and a fedora, looked vibrant. He said he was in good spirits. "My lawyer has instructed me or anybody else not to have any comments on anything outside my medical situation," Barry said.
Regarding his medical treatment, he said: "I didn't wish these things on me. I find it very disturbing that a person can't have simple medical procedures without you all sensationalizing it. People suffer every day. I empathize with them."
The drug test that Barry failed was required as a part of a pre-sentencing investigation, said two sources familiar with the case. Now he is undergoing voluntary drug testing as part of his private treatment to help establish that he is making an effort to stay drug free, said the sources, who asked not to be named because the case is pending.
For many in the city yesterday, their first reaction was to wish Barry luck in his continuing struggles with drugs.
"If the reports are true, my heart goes out to Marion,'' Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said in a statement. "I hope he is able to get the help he needs and to take care of his health.''
One Ward 8 leader said that should be a higher priority than his council work.
"He cannot help people in Ward 8 until he helps himself. That should be his number one priority," said longtime activist Phillip Pannell, who suggested Barry take a leave of absence from the D.C. Council. "He needs to be away from politics, away from the phone and staff, and deal with his health situation."
Others, however, said Barry has been productive in the last year, advocating for the city's poorest ward.
"He's in the mix," said Arrington Dixon, a former member of the D.C. Council who lives and works in Ward 8. "That's what we want him to be."
But regulars at Players Lounge, one of Barry's favorite haunts, said the former mayor often drinks there, even though he has admitted to abusing alcohol in the past.
Barry's tax case involved his failure to pay most of his federal and D.C. income taxes for six years after his fourth term as mayor ended in January 1999. Prosecutors said he received more than $530,000 in income over the six years but did not document most of it.
Richard A. Houck Jr., chief of the U.S. probation office in the District, said yesterday that he could not discuss specifics of Barry's case. He said it's clear, however, because of Barry's guilty plea to tax charges Oct. 28, that the probation office would -- and did -- conduct a routine pre-sentencing investigation of his situation.
In such investigations, defendants awaiting sentencing are automatically screened for seven drugs, including marijuana and cocaine, according to the office's protocol, and defendants generally are asked to submit to the testing immediately or shortly after their first court appearance.
"Mr. Barry was not singled out," Houck said. "This is our routine . . . . The whole pre-sentence process is about us determining the circumstances of an individual -- their past, their present."
Cocaine typically remains in a person's urine and can be detected in standard drug tests for 48 to 72 hours after use, according to screening experts. If a defendant fails a drug test, the probation office's pre-sentencing report will include that information. The report is confidentially shared with the judge and lawyers several weeks before the sentencing hearing. But the probation office does not typically request additional tests.
"In this kind of case, we are not supervising an individual," he said. "We are investigating him."
In Barry's case, prosecutors could choose to scrap a plea agreement on the tax charges because a failed drug test could be viewed as a breach of the agreement. But unless there's a pattern of continuing drug use, it is unusual in such cases for prosecutors to do so.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson has discretion in deciding whether Barry's infraction merits jail time or other sanctions at sentencing. Houck said some defendants who have failed a drug test were ordered to undergo drug treatment and prove their progress through subsequent testing. If the drug use continued, some have faced additional jail time or more restrictions.
Many of Barry's Ward 8 constituents said the latest revelation about drug use sent the wrong message to young people whom he has long championed.
Hannah Hawkins, who runs the Children of Mine after-school program, said she addressed some teenagers in her program who suggested that the former mayor might have been set up.
"He knew what he was doing was wrong," she said she told them. "He let the youth down. Very few people, especially in Ward 8, have been loved and respected by our youth as much as he has."
The few council colleagues who agreed to talk about Barry's situation used the vocabulary of addiction and recovery.
"If it's true, I look at it as a message for those who are struggling with their own demons and have spouses or loved ones in the same situation," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who has had his own struggles with drinking. He said that Jan. 30 will mark his 29th year of being sober.
"Even after many, many relapses, the fact that he is in treatment is a good thing," Graham said. "I'm not making excuses for him. He will be judged by others."
If Barry is incarcerated, he would not have to give up his council seat and could even introduce legislation from his jail cell, but he could not cast council votes, according to D.C. Council rules.
Barry would have to relinquish his council seat only if convicted of a felony, said Charlotte Brookins-Hudson, the council's general counsel. Barry pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor tax charge.
Staff writers Carol D. Leonnig and Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.