Campaign finance reform will get D.C. Council vote next month

October 22, 2013

The D.C. Council will vote on a package of campaign finance reforms as soon as early next month, taking a new step in an ethics push that began in the wake of high-profile federal investigations two years ago.

A council panel approved a package Tuesday that would restrict the ability of different companies owned by the same people to donate to the same candidate in an attempt to evade contribution limits. The bill also requires more transparency in donation “bundling” — the practice of a single fundraiser aggregating checks from his or her personal or professional network for a candidate’s benefit.

Campaign finance matters were left untouched by an ethics reform bill passed by the D.C. Council in late 2011, as federal authorities investigated then-council member Harry Thomas Jr. over the theft of city funds and Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 campaign for corruption. It fell to council member Kenyan R, McDuffie (D-Ward 5), chairman of the Government Operations Committee, to wrangle a bevy of reform proposals — including a package from Gray and Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan — into a passable bill.

The bill could get an initial vote from the full council as soon as Nov. 5.

One measure aimed at undermining “pay-to-play” politics did not make it into the bill passed by the committee Tuesday. In a draft circulated last week, McDuffie had included language meant to curtail the council’s power to approve city contracts — a practice some critics blame for unduly politicizing an executive function.

But that part of the bill was stripped after D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) objected, saying the measure was more properly handled by his own Committee of the Whole.

“Eliminating council approval of contracts will not eliminate opportunities for pay to play,” Mendelson said Tuesday. “The focus has to be on contractor contributions if we want to affect pay to play.”

A ban on contributions from those holding or seeking city contracts had been among the proposals backed by Gray and Nathan, but McDuffie said that it was “hard to make it workable” and that he opted instead to look at the council’s contract reviews.

Mendelson said he opposed the council giving up its contract approval power, noting that the council would remain free to meddle politically in more subtle ways. But he said he has agreed to hold a hearing on the matter.

Dan Wedderburn of DC for Democracy, a progressive activist group, said it was a “huge disappointment” that neither a contractor donation ban nor a curb on council contract approvals made it into the bill advanced Tuesday. He also doubted whether the measures that did survive would make a practical difference unless the council also devoted more resources to enforcement.

“We’ve got a lot of laws on the books,” Wedderburn said. “However, there’s this great lack of enforcement. . . . That’s a huge issue.”

The bill also earned criticism from Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who does not sit on the panel but is a mayoral candidate. He said in a statement that the council “must go farther” and ban all corporate contributions outright.

Panel members on Tuesday generally supported the reform measures that were included in the bill, including a fix for the “LLC loophole.” A vagary of District law exempts one type of company, the limited liability corporation, from restrictions on donations from different businesses that have the same owners.

The loophole allows particular businesses, primarily but not exclusively real estate development companies, to turbo­charge their political giving by aggregating donations from LLCs they control. Council members David A. Catania (I-At Large) and Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) took issue with some technical points but ultimately supported the bill.

The bill would also require lobbyists to disclose their ­donation-bundling — stopping short of a proposal to ban lobbyists from bundling — and would require political committees to report donations of $10,000 or more that they believe to have been bundled.

Other parts of the bill strengthen electronic-disclosure requirements and equalize the contribution limits for cash and money-order donations. Currently, campaigns can accept up to $25 in cash while any permissible amount can be given as a money order — a financial instrument that can be purchased with cash, thus making the ultimate source of the funds mostly untraceable.

McDuffie is seeking to set the limit for both cash and money-order donations to $100. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) objected to the hike in the cash contribution limit, saying it opened the door to mischief, but ultimately voted in favor of the bill.

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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