The D.C. Council is hearing testimony on a draft ethics bill expected to be put to a vote before year’s end. A host of political candidates and activists will testify on the law later in the day, but council members and a pair of city officials have offered plenty of suggestions.
Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, who had been sharply critical of an earlier stab at ethics reform, mostly applauded the consolidated bill drafted by Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), calling its establishment of a new Board of Ethics and Government Accountability a “material improvement over the current situation.”
That came after a bit of a diss of the council, with Nathan noting that city officials “cannot appear to tolerate questionable conduct by their peers” and that “there has been little or no condemnation by most elected officials of apparent violations by others” — a rather direct reference to his own lawsuit against Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) accusing him of diverting taxpayer funds to his own uses. After Thomas settled with Nathan for $300,000, only three of his fellow council members called for his resignation.
But Nathan was largely supportive of Bowser’s bill, including enhanced financial disclosures, though he raised concerns about certain provisions — including the inclusion of an “amorphous” criminal sanction for violations of the “public trust,” certain avenues of judicial review and the ability of the council to remove board members. He also directly questioned whether the new ethics body would be adequately staffed, calling for a “core of dedicated, qualified staff to render opinions, consider additional regulations and undertake routine investigations.” Bowser told him she “contemplated” a staff of 12 for the board.
Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) called for a number of changes to the bill, including the elimination of “bundled” political donations from related companies, donations from city contractors, and the elimination of constituent service funds. But Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), long a prolific constituent service fundraiser, defended use of the funds, calling them “a useful tool” to support individual constituents and community groups. He was joined by Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), who said he also opposed new curbs on constituent spending.
Evans, who came under scrutiny this year for using constituent service money to purchase sports tickets, said the council should resist the calls to clamp down. “These contributions are very important to a lot of organizations,” he said.
He also counseled against further restrictions on corporate “bundling,” saying that donors would find new, less transparent ways to influence elections — such as political action committees.
But under questioning from Wells, officials from the Office of Campaign Finance said they would welcome stronger measures to prevent bundling — a common practice where companies with overlapping or identical ownership donate to the same political campaign in order to circumvent donation limits.
Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown, who is facing a federal investigation of his 2008 reelection campaign, appeared at the hearing and offered praise for Bowser’s bill. Thomas also attended the hearing for a time and gave a short statement. He did not address the bill’s particulars, but said it would “go a long way” toward improving ethics laws in the city.