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Posted at 02:48 PM ET, 12/05/2011

The competing visions of D.C. ethics reform

D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) appeared on WTTG-TV this morning to discuss her ethics bill and the latest developments into the investigation of colleague Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5).

Bowser was asked about criticism from some quarters that her ethics bill does not go far enough: “Our job is to put the best bill on the table that’s going to fix the problem,” she said. “We had some suggestions about things that really didn’t address the behavior we have here: Term limits, for example, doesn’t address the problems that we have before us.”

She added: “There’s some people that want to eliminate the ability of corporations to give. None of those really impact the problems that we’re seeing currently, or close the loopholes that will prevent this type of behavior in the future.”

Bowser gets at something here that deserves to be spelled out more explicitly.

The members of the council are trying to craft a bill that toughens ethics standards and practices enough to deter someone brazen enough to do the things Thomas or council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) are alleged to have done: divert taxpayer money for private use, in the former case, and fail to disclose loads of campaign contributions and expenditures, in the latter case. That means codifying existing laws in one place, toughening some disclosure provisions and creating a more effective enforcement mechanism — all well and good.

The bill’s toughest critics are casting a wider net. They see a wider ethical rot and want to abolish practices engaged in by people who have not been accused of breaking any laws — spending constituent service money on sports tickets, for instance, or accepting donations from related companies and lobbyists. To this cadre, this bill is more about Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who appears to walk right up to the edge of the law, than it is about Thomas, who stands accused of blowing past it.

Obviously, the non-accused members of the council aren’t seeing themselves as part of the problem, hence the scope of the current bill and Bowser’s comments about “the problems we have before us.” Although the council’s ethics bill probably won’t include the more aggressive measures, the voters will get to weigh in on whether there’s a wider ethical rot.

Several who testified at a hearing last week that outside employment should be banned or that constituent service funds should be abolished — Mary Brooks Beatty (At Large), Sekou Biddle (At Large), Tom Brown (Ward 7), Max Skolnik (Ward 4) — will appear on ballots April 3.

By  |  02:48 PM ET, 12/05/2011

 
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