June 21, 2013

Indifference is to corruption what air is to breathing: The latter can’t get far without the former.

D.C. voters must know that if we yawn at learning that our political system is being corrupted by people who make campaign donations in others’ names to get around contribution limits, and that some elected officials and candidates have lied to the Office of Campaign Finance about the sources of their donations, then our indifference encourages the corrupt.

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.

McDuffie also intends to tackle inadequate resources and staff deficiencies in the Office of Campaign Finance. (Let the church say “Amen.”)

McDuffie, one year into the job, won’t face smooth sailing in the council. He probably can count on Wells, who recently declared his mayoral candidacy; independent David Grosso (At Large), who upset Michael Brown last year; and reformers such as Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3).

But council veteran and mayoral candidate Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) takes a narrower view of what’s needed. His answer, he told me in an interview this week, is to take the council out of the business of approving every city contract in excess of $1 million (a point I addressed in a February 2012 column, “Hands in the honey pot”). That, Evans said, would remove the incentive to indulge in pay-to-play politics. The council, he complained, has not acted on his proposal.

In an e-mail after my interview, Evans wrote, “I support the mayor’s proposals.” He added: “I think we either need to ban corporate campaign contributions entirely or we need to permit them with the recognition that the controlling shareholder of a corporation may also make a contribution in his or her personal name.”

The council’s third declared mayoral candidate, Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), said in an interview that she plans to wait to see what emerges from the Government Operations Committee, which she previously chaired.

Bowser contends that the Gray-Nathan proposals would not have deterred the kind of violations Machen’s investigation has unearthed. What’s needed, she maintains, is full disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures, and more vigorous enforcement of existing laws. She said she added several investigators and auditors to the Office of Campaign Finance when she chaired the committee.

These approaches are not mutually exclusive. Together, they might pack a punch.

Ultimately, however, voters must decide if they want the system reformed. If so, then get energized and send the council a message.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.