D.C. Council wrestles with campaign finance, ethics reforms

June 25, 2012

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.”

Yet, Brizill was still not persuaded, arguing that Gray should get someone else to lead the new board. “Maybe if we weren’t in the times we are in, maybe things would be different,” Brizill said in an interview. “But he’s going to make the decision himself, solely, whether or not he’s going to recuse himself, so why are we going there?”

Several of Spagnoletti’s former colleagues testified in support of his nomination, praising his character and devotion to government service.

Bernadette Sargeant, also a former assistant U.S. attorney, warned that it would be difficult to find a suitable chairman who does not have some past associations or professional ties to city leaders.

“The way a lot of people who are criticizing are presenting things, it’s a naive view,” said Sargeant, now in private practice. “It’s presuming, because you interact with a person or you do business with a certain person, you are a automatically looking to play for advantages.”

Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), the chairwoman of the committee, appeared satisfied with many of Spagnoletti’s answers. Gray’s other two nominees for the board — attorney Laura Richards and consultant Deborah Lathen — also appear headed for confirmations.

Bowser’s committee also met Monday to consider proposals to outlaw corporate donations to candidates, ban the use of money orders in excess of $25 as campaign contributions and prevent council members from working for city government contractors.

During the hearing, Nathan said he was concerned about what he views as a “a pay to play” culture in District government where political donors are rewarded with contracts.

“We believe it is imperative to protect the contracting process from undue political influence or even the appearance of such influence,” he said.

Nathan said Gray’s proposed rules would bar contractors who have or plan to bid on “significant contracts” from donating to elected officials who could be involved in the approval process. But Nathan said he opposes an outright ban on corporate giving, which activists are also pushing as a voter referendum in November.

“We don’t support the meat-ax way,” Nathan said. “We would like a more refined approach.”

The council is expected to vote on Spagnoletti’s nomination before it goes on recess in late July. The debate over campaign finance reforms is expected to stretch well into the fall.

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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