"Suppose you picked up this morning's newspaper and your life was a front-page headline. And everything they said was accurate, but none of it was true."
That's a line from the ads for "Absence of Malice," a 1981 Paul Newman movie about an innocent man wrongly portrayed by the press as a criminal.
That also could describe the recent life of Christopher D. Baker, owner of the Shirlington Limousine company, headquartered in suburban Arlington, Va. We are all judged by the company we keep. Chris Baker suddenly found he was being judged by a couple of the customers he had.
Before we go further, it is important to know a few things about Baker. For one, it is no secret in the small town of Washington, D.C., that he's an ex-convict and a recovered heroin addict. In fact, he's proud that he's been able to make something of himself in spite of an addiction that led him on a decade of petty crimes in the 1980s.
Before starting Shirlington Limousine, public records show, Baker was convicted on several misdemeanor charges between 1979 and 1989, including drug possession and attempted petty larceny, and two felony charges for attempted robbery and car theft.
"Nothing really major," he told me. "Just petty crimes to support my drug habit."
Fortunately, Baker got himself straight after his release in 1990 and has not faced further criminal charges. Instead, he started Shirlington with one car based at Washington Reagan National Airport and built it into a major fleet of limousines, sedans and vans.
His contract customers have included churches, corporations and major government agencies. Last year, he received a Small Business Meritorious Service Award for meeting the challenges of his contract with the Department of Homeland Security. This year, he was honored by The 100 Black Men of Washington, D.C., an organization of black professionals who, among other civic works, help mentor underprivileged youngsters.
"Chris was very honest with us about his background," said Marvin R. Dickerson, president of the Washington chapter of 100 Black Men. "Even through his recent difficulties he has continued to do things like donate buses and drivers to take our kids on field trips."
Baker takes his optimistic you-can-do-it message to youth groups, including a recent speech to 45 juvenile offenders in New York City. "I had to let them know there's life after death," he said.
Then he woke up one day to find the media portraying him as some kind of a pimp.
Worse, the portrayal was in connection with the congressional scandals involving Jack Abramoff and other super-lobbyists stroking congressmen with goody bags of cash and other treats in exchange for favors on big government contracts.
One of his customers, now-former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a California Republican, pleaded guilty to pocketing one of the largest money piles in Washington's long, rich history of bribery. Cunningham is now in federal prison.
Another Shirlington customer, Brent R. Wilkes, a contractor to whom Cunningham steered millions of dollars worth of contracts, was under investigation.
In the course of its sweeping investigations, which included FBI raids on Wilkes' and Cunningham's homes, the feds questioned Baker. They were investigating reports that Baker's limousines ferried Cunningham, Wilkes and others to parties at the famous Watergate and another nearby hotel at which prostitutes sometimes were in attendance. He denied all the charges and the evidence appears to back him up, despite months of investigations and media frenzy.
Baker has been probed by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security and testified before the Cunningham grand jury and the House Committee on Homeland Security. "I've been questioned more and produced more documents than anyone else involved this scandal," he said. "I don't know everybody who rides in my cars. And I've never seen Duke Cunningham with anyone but his wife."
The Department of Homeland Security has exercised its option to extend Baker's $23 million contract to its full five-year term, spokesman Larry Orluskie confirmed. The department continues to be satisfied with Shirlington's service, he said, which consists of vans to shuttle the department's workers around town and drivers for the department's executive sedans.
"Baker's a role model," one Homeland Security official told me. "They need to leave this guy alone."
Still, there's always a cloud. Baker's story reminds me of Ray Donovan, secretary of labor under President Ronald Reagan. After his acquittal on fraud charges after a highly publicized trial in 1987, he famously asked, "Where do I go to get my reputation back?"
There is no easy answer to that question for Baker, either. He can only start over again and remember, as he told the kids in New York, that there is life after what seems like death.