THE STATEMENT, WRITTEN LARGELY by his wife and sent to reporters by fax, spoke of the danger of "spiritual relapse" and invoked the 12-step doctrine of the Narcotics Anonymous program. Then Marion Barry, the flamboyant mayor of Washington, D.C., abruptly took indefinite personal leave to seek what he called "spiritual and physical rejuvenation." Given Barry's history, the use of the word "relapse" was arguably a poor choice: it has been only five years since the mayor was videotaped smoking crack during an FBI sting at a downtown hotel. And so it was understandable when the rumors began to fly -- that Barry was back on drugs, that he had been caught by the DEA in the act of buying coke outside a restaurant in Adams-Morgan, that he had recently tried to commit suicide.
None of this could be confirmed, and both Barry and his wife, Cora Masters Barry, emphatically denied that he was once again abusing drugs or alcohol. Friends said that Barry, who underwent prostate surgery in December, is having some difficulty recuperating and is exhausted from overwork. But on Wednesday, three days after the mayor's departure for a privately run executive retreat in Tracy's Landing, Md., one of his closest friends, boxing promoter Rock Newman, poured gasoline on the bonfire of gossip and speculation that was sweeping the city politic. Calling himself a "one-man truth squad" who was speaking out of concern for Barry's well-being, Newman said, "I appeal to Mayor Barry and our sister the first lady to stop the maddening process towards relapse and self-destruction" -- and urged the mayor to consider resigning. Asked point-blank whether Barry was using drugs, Newman hesitated, choosing his words. He then refused "to confirm, deny [or] verify whether "relapse' has taken place."
NEWSWEEK has learned that the FBI and local law-enforcement agencies have been receiving a steady stream of tips about Barry's alleged drug use for months, and that the FBI has repeatedly checked out the tips but none panned out. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, meanwhile, is investigating Barry's relationship with a Korean real-estate investor, Yong Yun, who received a $17.6 million city lease on an office building in southeast Washington. The probe, NEWSWEEK has learned, involves $150,000 worth of renovations to Barry's home, and FBI agents are trying to determine whether this work amounts to an illegal gratuity in exchange for the lease. Barry says he paid for the work, but he has never produced records to back up that claim. Yun also denied wrongdoing.
There's more to come. Sources say the Feds are also looking into allegations that Barry's wife misappropriated $2,000 from Barry's 1994 campaign, when he stunned the city establishment by winning a fourth term as mayor after his misdemeanor conviction and six-month prison term for illegal drug use. Cora Barry, who by every account is the dominant force in her husband's revived political career, has denied the money was diverted. According to one reported scenario, Barry's sudden sabbatical may be part of a plea-bargaining negotiation with the Feds to drop these investigations in return for the mayor's agreement to step down -- although a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office said rumors of deal are "absolutely not true." Other knowledgeable sources said the FBI, still smarting from the criticism it received over the 1990 sting that caught Barry smoking crack, isn't pushing its investigation of his private life. "Their attitude is, "We had him on videotape and all we got on him was a misdeameanor'," said Carl Rowan Jr., who heads a civic group called the Alliance for Public Safety. "Barry is not just a politician in this city -- for many people, he's more like a cult leader. He is to Washington what David Koresh was to his followers at Waco. It doesn't matter what gets reported about him."
But Koresh wasn't trying to manage the nation's capital -- or placate a hostile Congress. In the 18 months since Barry's political comeback, Washington has teetered on the brink of insolvency and had its cherished home-rule powers steadily curtailed by Congress. Basic public services like snow removal and pothole repair are in a shambles. And a congressionally appointed financial control board now oversees Barry's bloated and mismanaged government. Last week -- three days after Barry took leave -- city administrator Michael Rogers stripped the city's $1.6 billion-a-year Department of Human Services of its power to award new contracts after pressure from the financial control board.
In the next few weeks chairman Orrin Hatch's Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on the District's demoralized police department, which is in open rebellion against the mayor and his cronies. The deputy chief has an arrest record that includes charges of attempted murder and attempted assault (both charges were dropped) -- and once failed a departmental drug test. The former chief of the mayor's security detail is now under federal investigation for witness tampering in the same money-laundering probe that involves Barry's housekeeper and wife. Another mayoral bodyguard was caught breaking into the board of elections on the eve of a close city council election.
Ronald Robertson, the newly elected head of the D.C. police union, says it is "repugnant" that Barry is mayor at all. "If you're convicted of a drug crime, you can't be a police officer," Robertson says. "But you can get elected to an office that allows you to run the police department" of a city whose homicide rate and incidence of drug-related crime is among the worst in the nation. While Barry is unquestionably revered by thousands of lower-income residents, there are ample signs that many others are increasingly disenchanted with his administration. A March 1996 Washington Post poll showed that 35 percent of the District's middle-class black residents want to move out. Meanwhile, the mayor was still seeking "spiritual rejuvenation," first in Maryland and later near St. Louis. But insiders wondered whether the troubled reign of a shrewd political opportunist may finally be coming to a close.