A week after he unveiled dramatic allegations of corruption against a council member, city Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan on Monday criticized “major flaws” in an ethics overhaul under consideration by the D.C. Council.
While calling the bill introduced by council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) and council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) a “first step,” Nathan testified in a public hearing that it would create a “competing bureaucratic upstart” that would frustrate his own office’s efforts to root out public corruption.
Comments from Nathan and other witnesses are likely to complicate the District government’s efforts to respond to an unprecedented array of city hall scandals.
Nathan said the council should “scrap” the bill, which would create an Office of Government Accountability to police ethical matters and an advisory committee to make recommendations on city ethics law and procedures.
“A new bureaucracy is not the answer to the District’s ethics problems,” Nathan said. Instead, he said, his own office needed more “powers, resources and respect” — in particular, expanded subpoena authority for ethics probes. He urged legislators to draft a bill that offers a “comprehensive and sensible approach to the ethics problems that we all now face.”
Those problems have multiplied in the past week, lending urgency to the council’s attempt to rewrite the ethics laws.
On June 6, Nathan filed a civil lawsuit accusing council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) of funneling $316,000 in city funds intended for youth baseball programs to his personal use, including the purchase of a luxury SUV. Thomas denies the charges, but the allegations have further fueled an uproar over allegations of ethical lapses in city government.
At a council hearing last week, a former candidate for mayor repeated his allegations that Mayor Vincent Gray’s (D) campaign paid him off. And the council chairman is the subject of an ongoing investigation. The Office of Campaign Finance announced Friday that it was forwarding its probe into Brown’s 2008 council campaign to the District’s Board of Elections and Ethics for enforcement.
Besides alleging that Brown’s campaign failed to report a combined $270,000 in contributions and expenditures, the complaint amplified questions about the campaign’s ties to relatives of Brown.
In the complaint, made available Monday, the campaign finance office reported a new allegation: that the chairman’s brother, Che Brown, had control of a $60,000 “side account” that was not initially disclosed to authorities. Che Brown also is alleged to have owned a company that received about $240,000 in campaign funds through an intermediary.
The complaint said that Brown’s campaign failed to produce documentation for the payments made between his brother’s company, Partners in Learning, and the intermediary, Banner Consulting. The campaign finance office has asked the board to force Brown’s committee to provide bank statements documenting the transfers.
Brown attended Monday’s hearing, but he left the council chambers shortly before Cheh gaveled the hearing to a close. He did not respond to a request for an interview about the campaign finance charges.
In an interview last week, Cheh said the legislation she and Brown introduced last month was “not perfect” but was a bona fide attempt to strengthen the city ethics regime. “Is it something that’s the end-all and be-all? I don’t think so, but it’s a start,” she said.
At the hearing, Nathan criticized the council for curtailing his office’s subpoena power in a vote in the fall, after the council had quarreled with Nathan’s predecessor, Peter J. Nickles. More broadly, he called on city officials to “demonstrate a renewed commitment to creating an ethical environment and adhering to the highest ethical standards.”
Other government officials, including Togo D. West Jr., chairman of the Board of Elections and Ethics, also were critical of the new bodies the bill would create. In a statement delivered Monday by a board attorney, West lamented that the mayor would appoint the accountability office’s head with council confirmation, while members of the advisory committee also would be appointed by the mayor and council.
“This is a step away from the objective of independent advice freely devised and unhesitatingly propounded,” West said in the statement.
Cecily E. Collier-Montgomery, who heads the Office of Campaign Finance, also expressed reservations about the new office but spoke in favor of the stronger financial disclosure requirements in the draft bill.
Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-At Large) said at the hearing that he would introduce a separate piece of legislation that would vest power in a “Committee on Ethics and Accountability” to specifically police elected officials. The panel would be comprised of the leaders of six independent city bodies, including the attorney general, the inspector general and the chief financial officer.
After the hearing, Cheh said that she would not move her bill though her Government Operations Committee until after the council’s summer recess. In the meantime, she said she would convene “task forces” to improve the bill. She rejected claims from several witnesses that she was moving too quickly to enact legislation.
“I’m not rushing,” Cheh said. “I want to get started, though.”
Nathan also announced that he has hired a new ethics specialist in his office. Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, will update ethics materials and conduct training within the government, Nathan said.