Accounts of the city’s polluted politics continued unfolding this week when accounting executive Lee Calhoun
pleaded guilty in federal court to making campaign contributions in the names of others.
There’s more to come from U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen and his team.
But today’s issue is not how many cheaters get caught. (Dig all of them out, root, branch and stem.) The question is whether D.C. voters are outraged enough to demand that their broken campaign finance system be fixed.
To their credit, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan have crafted a set of reforms that could go a long way toward bringing greater accountability and transparency to D.C. elections. Regardless of how Gray fares in Machen’s corruption probe, the Gray-Nathan reform package deserves consideration.
The proposals would crack down on “pay-to-play,” the scheme in which contractors seeking city business contribute to officials who can influence the award of contracts or grants. Anyone who has or is seeking a contract or grant with the city valued at $250,000 or more would be barred from contributing to any public official involved in the approval process or to any entity in which the official has a significant financial interest.
Frankly, $250,000 is too rich for my taste. Why let any contractors contribute to an official involved in approving their contract or grant?
The Gray-Nathan proposals would curb lobbyists’ influence by barring them from bundling campaign contributions — another slick way of evading campaign contribution limits.
The proposals would tighten disclosure rules, make candidates more accountable for their campaign committees’ activities, and stiffen civil and criminal penalties for violations.
No-brainers? No way.
The D.C. Council has lacked the fortitude to break the chains that bind it to a corrupt system.
In 2011, Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) proposed a bill to curb pay-to-play. Wells’s legislation received one vote — his own.
The Gray-Nathan proposals, introduced last fall, never received a vote by the end of the council’s legislative session in December. They were reintroduced at the start of the new council in January and deserve consideration.
Campaign finance reform should be a litmus test for elected officials and candidates who claim to want a clean system.
Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), chairman of the council committee that oversees campaign finance laws, told me in an interview this week that he intends to send a reform bill to the full council in the fall. McDuffie said his bill would include several features of the Gray-Nathan proposals: putting limits on donations by contractors, tightening contribution loopholes exploited by limited liability companies, and enhancing disclosure rules with stiff penalties for violations.