July 20, 2012

In June 2003 a D.C. Office of Campaign Finance final audit of a D.C. Council member’s 2000 reelection committee found that “the Committee received individual Contributions from a business entity and its wholly-owned subsidiary in violation of the District’s campaign contribution limitations.”

In light of that finding, did the office sanction: (1) the contributor; (2) the reelection committee; or (3) both?

Answer: None of the above.

The office merely recommended that the reelection committee “reimburse the campaign contributor for the excessive contribution.” It agreed to give the money back. The case was closed.

There you have it. A broken window, left unrepaired.

That is the story of campaign finance violations in this city: A broken window here, a broken window there. Too few to bother repairing. No one cares anyway.

Now look: Broken windows everywhere.

The pass given to the rule-breaker in 2003 was another signal that D.C. campaign finance laws aren’t to be taken seriously. Veteran council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) owned up to that weakness last year when he noted that the $5,000 fine for not disclosing required campaign finance information is seen by most politicians and contributors as a “cost of doing business.”

Our political culture has deteriorated to the stage where large-scale corruption draws the silent treatment.

Take Jeanne Clarke Harris’s guilty plea this month to violating federal and D.C. campaign laws in efforts to elect Vincent Gray mayor in 2010. Authorities have noted that 16 people knowingly, willfully and corruptly made unlawful contributions to Gray’s campaign — a true mockery.

Yet, where is the community uproar?

An illegal $653,000 fund to elect Gray is uncovered and what’s the reaction? Supporters stage a respect-the-mayor rally.

Good grief.

Until U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen came along, campaign-law violators in the District operated with little fear. They never worried that their behavior would be frowned upon if discovered. Sleazy conduct had become the political norm.

So how does the city migrate to a clean campaign environment, one in which everybody knows that corrupt behavior will not be tolerated?

First, dig out the corrupt — by root, branch and stem. That includes the three Gray campaign unknowns: “Co-conspirator #1,” “Person A” and the mastermind behind the “shadow campaign” operation.

Harris has copped her plea and will face the music, hopefully soon. But what about “Co-conspirator #1,” the person who prosecutors say schemed with Harris to make illegal campaign contributions and bankrolled the operation?

Co-conspirator #1, reported to be made-in-D.C. businessman Jeffrey Thompson, has not been charged with any crime. Will he get uprooted?

And what about “Person A”? Gray associate Howard L. Brooks, who pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators, testified that this person “instructed” him in June 2010 to pay a fringe candidate, Sulaimon Brown, to stay in the mayoral race and continue his verbal attacks on then-Mayor Adrian Fenty. “Person A” deserves to be dug out and shipped to court.

Likewise, we need to know who conceived the secret campaign. Harris testified that while Co-conspirator #1 was the source of the money, “the plan was developed by another person.”

Who was the shadow campaign’s architect? This person must be clipped and displayed at the defendant’s table.

Then there are folks who wittingly became straw men and conduits for illegal contributions. Whack away at them.

And while we’re at it, boot out all the politicians who take money and look the other way. They know who they are. It’s time for D.C. voters to find out, too.

That’s the only way our contaminated system gets cleaned up.

We need to make it costly to break windows. Show the slicksters and the sly how much we care by demanding sharp increases in penalties for violations of campaign law. Triple or quadruple the fine.

Double the number of trained and well-paid campaign auditors and investigators.

End the “pay to play” system in which money gets to decide our policies. If we cannot stop corporate contributions to D.C. elections and council members’ “constituent services funds,” then impose strict limits and transparency requirements on corporate donors so voters know immediately who is giving — and hoping to get in return.

Open closed primaries to all voters.

Encourage good people to run for office.

It might take a lot of convincing, but getting the likes of Tony Williams, William Lightfoot and Kathy Patterson back in the game would do wonders for the city.

Likewise, it is worth encouraging Vincent Cohen Jr. of the U.S. attorney’s office, the Justice Department’s Channing Phillips and Marie Johns of the Small Business Administration to give city politics a closer look.

The main goal: Take back the District from the corrupt.

kingc@washpost.com