D.C. Council overhauls ethics laws

December 20, 2011

The D.C. Council approved the most comprehensive overhaul of city ethics laws in a generation Tuesday, toughening disclosure rules and creating new penalties for misconduct, including for the first time giving members the power to impeach a colleague.

The legislation, approved by a 12 to 1 vote, caps a six-month effort by the council to respond to a series of ethical controversies and federal investigations that have shaken public confidence in city government.

Council members agreed to establish a three-member ethics panel, bar felons from serving on the council or as mayor and, also for the first time, empower the D.C. attorney general to prosecute elected officials accused of ethical misconduct. The measure goes to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who is expected to sign it.

During several hours of sometimes acrimonious debate, members argued over whether to avoid and dilute proposed ethics rules. The council voted down regulations that would have barred them from holding second jobs and that would have required them to disclose when city contractors donate to their campaigns.

Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), who had promised that the council would pass the regulations by year’s end, said the revised measure proves the body is committed to upholding the public’s trust.

“It’s been a hard, long road this year, but . . . we delivered for the residents,” Brown said.

With half of the council up for reelection next year, Brown and his colleagues hope that their actions Tuesday will help them shift from the ethical problems and criminal probes that have dangled over city government this year.

This month, the FBI and IRS raided the home of council member Harry Thomas Jr. after allegations by D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan that the Ward 5 Democrat diverted $300,000 in city money for his personal use.

The U.S. attorney’s office is also investigating whether money was properly accounted for in Brown’s 2008 reelection campaign. Allegations about Gray’s campaign and his administration’s hiring practices are also under federal investigation. Thomas, Brown and Gray have denied wrongdoing.

The council’s refusal to bar second jobs and ban donations from lobbyists and city contractors upset some activists looking ahead to the 2012 elections.

“This meager attempt to end the council’s continuing ethics scandals falls tragically short,” said David Grosso, an independent at-large council candidate who lives in Brookland.

But some council members said they felt insulted by suggestions that they needed more oversight, noting that there are only a few examples of alleged graft involving elected officials.

“There has not been a history of corruption and pay to play in this government at all,” said council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who was censured last year after an investigation of a personal services contract from his office and whose tax problems have led the IRS to file a lien against a home he owns in Southeast Washington. “This bill is being driven by the media. Power has been accrued by the media, not the people.”

The legislation bolsters financial disclosure guidelines and conflict-of-interest laws, including disclosing all outside income, and slashes by 50 percent what council members can raise for constituent service funds.

It also sets new restrictions on donations to campaign transition committees — $2,000 limits for mayor and $1,000 for council chairman.

But some advocates and council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who cast the lone vote against the bill, argued that the council failed to substantially tackle the role of money in D.C. politics.

This month, the council voted down an effort by Wells to ban bundling of campaign donations and prohibit city contractors from donating to council members. On Tuesday, the council rejected an amendment by Wells that would have required political candidates to disclose when they receive contributions from a contractor.

Wells said the final mark in his decision to vote against the bill came after council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) successfully pushed to undo a proposed restriction on how members spend their constituent service accounts.

When council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) drafted the bill, she included language barring members from using the funds to pay for season tickets to sporting and other cultural events. Bowser’s proposal was in response to a Washington Post story in August noting that Evans had spent $135,897 in constituent service funds for professional sports tickets over the past decade.

At the time, Evans said the expenses were permissible by law. He said he gave most of the tickets to constituents. And during Tuesday’s debate, Evans persuaded seven of his colleagues to join him in removing the proposed restriction.

“I believe it’s embarrassing now that we seemed to enshrine that constituent service funds can be spent, really, for the council members’ pleasure,” Wells said. “I think we have just really opened the door on raising private dollars for activities that really need to be paid for out of our own personal funds or public funds.”

Evans declined to comment. But Brown, who voted with Evans, said season tickets are an appropriate use of the funds because members often give them to constituents.

The squabbling over the funds was just one of several heated battles during the debate.

Council members voted down an amendment from Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) that would have barred members, who make $125,583 annually, from holding second jobs starting in 2019.

“Why should someone doing business with the city, with millions of dollars in contracts, be able to have a council member on their payroll?” Orange asked.

Bowser, chairman of the Government Operations Committee, countered that it should be left up to voters to decide whether they care if their representative holds a second job.

“Is the council better off just because we ban outside income?” Bowser asked. “Does that make someone more ethical?”

The new regulations, Bowser and other members have said, greatly increase the pressure on elected officials to adhere to ethical standards.

If signed by Gray, a new Board of Ethics and Government Accountability will take the lead in policing officials’ conduct. If the board determines there is a violation, it could issue fines of as much as $5,000 an instance. The city’s attorney general would also be able to prosecute local political-corruption cases. Those convicted could face up to a year in prison or a $25,000 fine.

A council member convicted of a felony would be required to give up his seat.

And in other cases involving suspected wrongdoing, the council could reprimand, censure or expel a member — the first time since home rule began in the mid-1970s — if the ethics board rules that he has “substantially violated the public trust.”

It would take five members to vote to launch impeachment proceedings, but it would take 11 votes to remove a member. The provision would apply only to council members, meaning there is still no mechanism for the council to impeach a mayor.

The new rules on felony convictions and impeachment would require changes in the city charter, so the measures have to be approved by voters.

Still, council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said the legislation marks real change.

“It’s going to be a measurable improvement of where we are now,” he said.

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Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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