The D.C. Council and Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration struggled with ethics and campaign finance reforms Monday, presenting new hurdles to officials seeking to overcome recent scandals testing their leadership skills.
In a series of hearings at the John A. Wilson Building, officials debated over a new ethics panel and how to reduce the influence of money in District politics. The hearings took place as the council prepares for summer recess after a trying spring session, when two council members resigned and an ongoing investigation into Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign seemed to intensify.
The council enacted a series of reforms in December to bolster government ethics laws and implement new penalties for lawmakers who violate them. But the council is now beginning the process of examining whether new campaign finance rules are also needed.
Testifying before the council, Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan said he and Gray will soon be proposing sweeping campaign finance reform legislation, including banning lobbyists from bundling contributions and quicker disclosure of campaign donations.
“Amid criminal convictions and allegations that have undermined public confidence in our electoral system . . . this administration believes campaign finance reform should be a high priority to restore public trust,” said Nathan, who added that he was concerned with what he called the city’s “pay to play” culture.
But even before the council considers any proposed reforms, the mayor’s nominee to head the newly created board of Ethics and Government Accountability was placed on the defensive over his day job.
Robert J. Spagnoletti, a former District attorney general, spent more than an hour answering questions from council members about whether it would be a conflict for him to chair the board while working at a law firm where he at times represents city officials and employees.
Civic activist Dorothy Brizill testified against Spagnoletti, saying his biography at Schertler and Onorato notes he “regularly advises individuals and businesses on how to navigate a variety of legal issues through the District government.” Spagnoletti also briefly served as Gray’s personal attorney in 2010 when the mayor was facing a city hearing over the height of a fence at his home.
But Spagnoletti told the Committee on Government Operations he’s prepared to recuse himself from the three-member board when a potential conflict arises. “I would take myself out of it,” said Spagnoletti, adding he would also avoid considering matters involving Gray in the “short term” because of his past work as the mayor’s attorney.
Spagnoletti, who worked as an assistant U.S. attorney before serving as the District’s attorney general from 2004 to 2006,said his firm represents only one client who is a city employee and it has just “three or four other matters” pending before a city agency. Spagnoletti said recusal “will serve the public interest and give District residents assurance” that his “practice will cause neither an actual nor an appearance of conflict.”