D.C. ethics law overhaul hampered by hiring difficulties, enforcement duties

March 26, 2012

A vast overhaul of District government ethics laws has been complicated by difficulty recruiting members to a new ethics board and by confusion over who, in the interim, will enforce laws on the books.

The D.C. Council passed the overhaul in December, weeks before one of its members resigned in disgrace and pleaded guilty to federal felony charges. New developments in a federal probe of campaign finance in the city have heightened scrutiny of ethical matters, but there is skepticism that the new laws can be implemented as quickly as lawmakers contemplated.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has encountered difficulty identifying quality candidates willing to serve on the new Board of Ethics and Government Accountability. According to two city officials with knowledge of the matter, several high-caliber candidates, including retired federal judges, have declined invitations to serve on the three-member board. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

An emergency version of the law that went into effect Jan. 29 required that the mayor submit nominees for its review within 45 days. Only early this month did Gray make a public appeal for appointees, days before the deadline elapsed.

D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) said Monday that Gray’s chief of staff, Christopher K. Murphy, has assured her nominees will be forthcoming by mid-April. She pledged to move swiftly to move qualified appointees through the Government Operations Committee that she chairs.

Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Gray, declined to offer a timetable but expressed confidence that appointees would be swiftly identified. “The administration continues to work to find qualified candidates to fill the positions,” he said. “We’re hopeful that we will be announcing nominees quickly.”

The new board is scheduled to take over a number of oversight functions from the existing Board of Elections and Ethics on Oct. 1, when the District’s fiscal year begins.

Gray has proposed spending $835,000 for the board’s operations next year, enough to hire as many as eight full-time employees. But without board members in place, it’s unclear whether it will be ready to hire those workers or otherwise discharge its responsibilities.

Among them is the handling of financial disclosure statements for elected officials and certain other D.C. government employees. Previously, those filings have been due to the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance on May 15 of each year; those filings are not due this year until Oct. 2.

“We trust that the new Ethics Board will provide the public with additional information regarding the new requirements,” the office said in a notice publicizing the new date.

Bowser, who introduced the ethics bill and shepherded it through the council, said the delay was contemplated in the process of enacting the law, which requires a more comprehensive set of disclosures from the covered officials.

“Those disclosure forms had so little information that I’m not sure how much disclosure there actually was,” she said. “We want a more robust system.”

But preparations — such as drafting new forms, issuing regulations and developing computer filing systems — are necessary if the new board is going to accept the forms in October. There is funding in the current budget for a skeleton staff, but only the yet-to-be-appointed board is legally empowered to hire employees. The board is also set to take over the registration and regulation of lobbyists at that time.

Aside from the delay, there is a dispute over whether an entire swath of D.C. ethics law can currently be enforced. An Office of Campaign Finance spokesperson said the new ethics legislation ended its responsibility for enforcing conflict of interest laws.

The emergency bill passed by the council in January repealed the entirety of the District’s conflict of interest statute, replacing it with new law, most of which is not scheduled to go into effect until Oct. 1.

In a brief order earlier this month that closed its investigation into former D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), the office noted that it could not presently embark on such an investigation, noting that it “lacks the authority to proceed with the investigation of alleged violations of the District of Columbia Conflict of Interest laws.” Those include restrictions on elected officials using their positions for personal financial gain.

The spokesman, Wesley Williams, said the office continues to enforce standards of conduct for city employees, which include restrictions on conflicts of interest. But it is unclear whether those rules apply to elected officials and members of city boards and commissions.

The office, part of the Board of Elections and Ethics, is no longer providing advisory opinions on conflicts of interest to council members, as it had in the past, Williams said.

Dorothy Brizill, a civic watchdog who raised concerns with the council about the scope of the law and speed with which it was passed, called the situation “a mess.”

“We didn’t have a perfect system,” she said. “We at least had something on the books.”

Bowser said that there was no intent on the council’s part to leave conflicts of interest unpoliced and that it is her view that the office may still investigate them.

“We see that differently, and if we need to clarify it in the law, we will,” she said.

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.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Local