D.C. ethics bill an improvement but still falls short, some say

November 30, 2011

Witnesses at a D.C. Council hearing Wednesday agreed: The ethics reform legislation under its consideration is not perfect. To what degree it deviates from perfection was a matter of sometimes animated debate.

City officials and political candidates were among those who weighed in on a bill introduced by council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) that consolidates other reform proposals introduced this year. The bill would establish a Board of Ethics and Government Accountability to take over some duties of the existing Board of Elections and Ethics and impose new strictures, including tougher financial disclosure requirements for city officials.

But some of those who testified Wednesday said that the bill is not sweeping enough, particularly with respect to “constituent service funds,” the non-campaign political accounts for which most officeholders solicit individual and corporate donations.

The Bowser bill would halve the current $80,000 yearly fundraising limit and place new curbs on allowable expenditures, but several attendees demanded their outright abolishment.

They included council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who called for a number of other changes to the bill, including the elimination of “bundled” political donations from related companies and a ban on donations from city contractors.

But council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), long a prolific constituent service fundraiser, defended the funds, calling them “a useful tool” in supporting individual constituents and community groups. He was joined by council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), who said he also opposed new curbs on constituent spending.

Evans, who came under scrutiny this year for using constituent service money to buy sports tickets, said the council should resist the pressure created by the recent scrutiny. “These contributions are very important to a lot of organizations,” he said.

He also counseled against further restrictions on bundling, a practice in which companies with overlapping or identical ownership donate to the same political campaign to circumvent donation limits. He said that donors would find less transparent ways to influence elections, such as through independent political action committees.

Under questioning from Wells, officials from the Office of Campaign Finance said they would welcome stronger measures to regulate the practice.

Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, who had criticized an earlier stab at ethics reform, did not mention bundling or constituent service funds and mostly applauded Bowser’s bill, calling its establishment of a new ethics board a “material improvement over the current situation.”

Nathan did, however, raise concerns about certain provisions, including the inclusion of an “amorphous” criminal sanction for violations of the “public trust” and the ability of the council to remove board members. He also questioned whether the new ethics body would be adequately staffed, calling for a “core of dedicated, qualified staff to render opinions, consider additional regulations and undertake routine investigations.”

Bowser told him that she “contemplated” a staff of as many as 12 for the new board. After the hearing, she said she was considering making changes to the structure of the new board but was less inclined to address other concerns before the bill is sent to the full council this month.

“I feel pretty good about where we landed,” she said.

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), who is facing a federal investigation of his 2008 reelection campaign, appeared briefly at the hearing and offered praise for Bowser’s bill.

Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), whom Nathan accused of diverting $300,000 of city funds to his own uses, also attended the hearing for a time and gave a short statement. He did not address the bill’s particulars but said it would “go a long way” toward improving city ethics laws.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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