D.C. Council to consider ethics reform bill

November 18, 2011

The D.C. Council, in a bid to clamp down on misconduct by city officials, is considering legislation that would establish an independent ethics panel, slash how much money council members can raise to help constituents, and require stricter reporting of outside income and potential conflicts.

The bill, released Friday, would amount to one of the most significant overhauls of ethics standards since home rule was conferred on the District in the mid-1970s.

The legislation, drafted by council member Muriel Bowser, avoids several headline-grabbing proposals that had been suggested earlier in the fall, including imposing term limits or prohibiting political contributions from lobbyists.

Instead, Bowser (D-Ward 4) has assembled a bill that seeks to respond narrowly to several questions that have been raised this year concerning the alleged actions of some city leaders and government staffers.

Council members, for example, would be required to file an annual affidavit in which they will have to certify they paid all of their taxes and had not “been offered or accepted any bribes” or engaged in any “pay to play schemes.”

Bowser, chairman of the Government Operations Committee, pulled together the proposal after sifting through 10 ethics reform bills introduced by members this year. “We feel like we really capture the spirit of the bills that were put forth,” Bowser said.

The full council is expected to consider Bowser’s proposal in early December. If the bill is approved, council members will be allowed to raise only $40,000 for their constituent service funds, half of the current limit.

Although lobbyists would still be allowed to donate to campaigns, they would be banned from giving free or discounted legal services to government officials. Council members also would be required to report the source of all outside income. Currently, members have to report only income drawn from an entity that does business with the city.

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) vowed swift consideration of the bill.

“This shows our commitment to have a comprehensive ethics bill passed by the end of this year,” said Brown, who gave Bowser wide latitude to craft a consensus proposal.

The most far-reaching aspect of the bill is the creation of a three-member Board of Ethics and Government Accountability to police the conduct of elected officials, essentially stripping that responsibility from the Board of Elections and Ethics.

The new board, which could have up to a dozen staffers, would have subpoena authority to investigate allegations of wrongdoing.

If the board finds violations, it would be able to issue fines of up to $5,000 per instance. If the board finds a substantial violation, it can recommend that the council censure, remove or suspend a member’s committee membership and his or her ability to vote in any committee.

The council would have 72 hours to decide whether it wants to implement the panel’s recommendation.

The members of the new board, which could be empaneled as early as the summer, would be appointed by the mayor but confirmed by the council.

For years, some civic activists have urged the council to establish an internal or external ethics committee to shift some of the burden off the Board of Elections and Ethics.

But some already are questioning whether Bowser’s proposal would lead to a strong ethics panel.

Paul Craney, executive director of the D.C. Republican Committee, said he wants a commitment that at least one of the board’s members will be a non-Democrat.

“We are the Wild West for ethics, and Bowser’s bill brings about some law, but we are still essentially missing a sheriff to enforce some of these provisions,” said Craney, noting that the charter requires one member from a non-majority party on the elections board.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who has been pushing for an aggressive ethics proposal, including a ban on donations from lobbyists, called Bowser’s proposal “a good first step.”

“It’s a good first step, but a first step only,” said Wells, who would also like to prohibit contractors from donating to political campaigns and outlaw the bundling of campaign donations.

As drafted, the legislation makes clear that the mayor and council chairman can establish transition and inaugural committees. But, similar to the restrictions on campaign committees, the measure sets limits on how much an individual can give.

Besides capping fundraising for constituent service accounts, Bowser’s bill would create new restrictions on what the money can be used for. Using the fund to pay for season tickets to sporting events, parking tickets or newspaper advertisements would be banned.

Although council members under investigation would be allowed to set up legal defense funds, the bill would cap each donation at $5,000. Lobbyists would not be able to contribute to the fund.

The bill also expands the window available to residents to launch a recall effort on a petition to all four years of a term. Currently, a recall can be launched only in the second or third years of a four-year term.

Staff writer Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

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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