D.C. Council is set to change code of conduct, pushing back on ethics board


Chairman Phil Mendelson is moving the change to the council code of conduct, which would gut a previous ethics board ruling. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Updated at 2:35 p.m. to reflect that BEGA was notified of rules change

Next week, D.C. Council members will be voting on whether to continue council-membering as usual.

A resolution on the agenda for Tuesday’s legislative meeting takes the relatively unusual step of revising the council’s code of conduct mid-term. The draft legislation would make clear that council members and staff may conduct “representational activities, such as advocacy, communications, inquiry, oversight, and other actions … on another person’s behalf” so long as said member or staffer does not “threaten reprisal or promise favoritism” to anyone they are dealing with or “request that another person abuse or exceed the discretion available to that person under law.”

While the language may seem sensible and innocuous, it is also a bit of a diss to the District’s new Board of Ethics and Government Accountability. Should the resolution pass, it would have the effect of gutting an opinion issued last summer by the board’s ethics director on the proper exercise of constituent services.

That opinion was drafted after the board admonished Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) for improperly intervening with health inspectors who were seeking to close a business owned by a campaign contributor. Orange called it “clearly acceptable constituent service,” but the board said he had abused the “prestige of his office,” and the board felt pressed to more clearly define what does and does not constitute “usual and customary” constituent services, as defined in the council’s code of conduct.

The board took into account things like “power parity” and other abstractions, and the resulting opinion rankled council members, who have long been accustomed to being able to pick up the phone, dial up government employees or other officials, and get things done. It suggested that what many have considered long-standing practice might be seen by the board as an ethical breach.

Hence Tuesday’s resolution, which seeks to more fully define “usual and customary” constituent services — a term which, as the board noted in its opinion, was ill-defined. Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), writing in a memo to his colleagues, said “it is clear that the Council does not believe that this opinion adequately captures the constituent service function of this branch of government.”

Darrin Sobin, the director of government ethics who reports to the board, said the council did not consult with his office his office was not involved in drafting the changes to the code of conduct but was consulted on the matter. Mendelson said in an interview that, should the resolution pass, he expects council lawyers to continue consulting with board lawyers about revising their opinion.

As for whether the changes promote the interest of ethics and government accountability, Sobin declined to say. “[T]he Council has seen fit to revise the Code, which it has the prerogative to do,” he said in an e-mail.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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