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Posted at 05:21 PM ET, 10/26/2011

D.C. ethics reform: Where’s the sheriff?


For the moment, Bowser is the council’s ethics czar. (Katherine Frey - The Washington Post)
The D.C. Council is now six hours into its ethics extravaganza, and it will probably still be at it for another hour or two.

There is no shortage of ideas on what needs to be fixed and how to fix it. Full-time council members? Ban lobbyist donations to political campaigns? Ban city contractor donations to political campaigns? Ban “bundling” of contributions? End constituent service funds? Scale them back? Expand disclosure requirements for officials? Enforce the disclosure requirements we already have? Establish a new ethics office or commission? Strengthen the offices we have?

There has been one bit of testimony that deserves particular attention. Kenneth McGhie, general counsel for the Board of Elections and Ethics, said the following in his written testimony:

There is a growing sense among voters, as they have watched recent ethics investigations unfold, that the ethics laws of the district are not sufficient. That is because they are not. The ethics laws of the District of Columbia are fragmented, and the responsibilities of different agencies have evolved over time in ways that leave gaps in our ethics enforcement.

He later adds, “Personally, I believe that an entirely new office for ethics compliance or a chief ethics compliance officer position should be created.”

Keep in mind this is the chief lawyer for the city’s chief ethics enforcement body only body with the word “ethics” in it admitting that the current laws aren’t getting the job done. And neither is the current enforcement regime.

Allow me to revisit a not-a-column from March: There’s no sheriff in town right now — as I put it, “a guy who not only finds the bad guys and deals them the justice they deserve, but a fellow whose mere presence serves as a hedge against bad behavior, an everyday reminder that public malfeasance will be swiftly exposed and punished.”

Right now, policing ethics issues is no one person’s responsibility, so no one is taking responsibility.

Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who is sorting out this whole ethics mess, has suggested the ethics portion of the Board of Elections and Ethics needs to be separated out. Sounds like a fine idea. But I’m wondering: By definition, can a board, even an ethics-only board, really be the sheriff?

By  |  05:21 PM ET, 10/26/2011

 
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