The newest arm of District government sprang into being today — publicly, anyway — when the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability gaveled to order its first meeting in a small One Judiciary Square conference room.
Chairman Robert Spagnoletti made it clear this operation is on a shoestring, and will remain on a shoestring for at least a few more weeks. It has a skeleton Web site and e-mail addresses, but as of today, no office space, phone number or personnel.
But there are even bigger challenges before the board assumes its duties on Oct. 1, per the city’s new ethics laws. It must hire staff, including an executive director, an Open Government director, lawyers and investigators. It has to implement case-handling systems and write regulations governing its operations.
“It’s all been logistics,” Spagnoletti said, adding that, in the absence of a staff, he and the other supposedly part-time board members — Deborah Lathen and Laura Richards — have been doing the grunt work themselves.
“Let’s be clear: It’s part-time, full-time if you know what I mean,” Lathen said.
The first meeting wasn’t too early for the board to field a spot of criticism from veteran activist Dorothy Brizill, who questioned whether the board can do more to promote ethics than its predecessor, the old Board of Elections and Ethics. That body, she noted, regularly found criminal violations and referred them to the “black hole” — a U.S. attorney’s office that showed little interest in prosecuting them.
One of those cases was the petition fraud on Anthony A. Williams’s 2002 mayoral campaign. The feds took a pass on felony charges, and it was left to the D.C. attorney general at the time to pursue possible misdemeanors. That AG, you might recall, was Spagnoletti.
Spagnoletti, while noting that his office can levy significant fines and recommend the censure or expulsion of elected officials, reminded Brizill that, thanks to Congress, only the U.S. attorney can prosecute serious criminal acts.
”We can’t force them; no one can force them,” he said. “They own us. The U.S. owns us. . . . We only have the power that we have.”