D.C. Council ethics legislation falls short
By Colbert I. King,
Muriel Bowser, chairman of the D.C. Council’s Government Operations Committee, says this about the committee’s ethics bill and the Wednesday hearings on the bill: She feels “pretty good about where we landed.” And well she should. The ethics bill, which the full council will consider this month, is likely to please her colleagues to no end. It is a toothless wonder.
The legislation leaves intact the current “pay to play” system, preserves the use of “constituent service” slush funds and allows council members to continue collecting tons of freebies and holding outside jobs. These practices make the city’s legislature a fun place to work.
Ethics-minded taxpayers, however, should be disappointed.
The bill’s main feature is a classic Washington response to any problem: Create a committee.
Do we need an additional city agency to do what the existing Board of Elections and Ethics should be empowered to do with extra auditors and investigators? No. But a new bureaucracy, dubbed the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, is what Bowser’s bill produces in the name of ethics reform.
As for stuff that cries out for change, it’s business as usual.
Lobbyists and private interests who are engaged in business with the city or who seek to influence District policy by greasing their way into a council member’s good graces with campaign contributions can, under the committee’s bill, continue to ply their trade.
The bill only winks at a solution. It would require a council member to certify in periodic reports that “he or she has . . . not engaged in any pay-to-play schemes or quid pro quo arrangements.” That’s it.
Should the bill become law, lobbyists and special interests will be free to continue hosting and participating in campaign “fundraisers” that buy — or at least rent — the attention and support of District lawmakers.
The same license applies to constituent service funds.
Which gets us to, perhaps, the boldest sleight-of-hand trick in the bill.
Under the Bowser bill, the fundraising limit on constituent service funds — political accounts from which council members can spend on those they represent — will shift from $80,000 to $40,000. Cheer for joy? C’mon.
Bowser’s bill merely returns the annual limit on these funds to the level it was at before a rapacious council voted in 2009 to double the intake.
Some council members have claimed that constituent service funds help provide a safety net for needy D.C. residents. The group DC for Democracy blew that claim out of the water. This week, Dan Wedderburn, chair of the organization’s Government Reform Committee, told me in an e-mail that his group’s research “shows council members spent on average only 12 percent of their constituent services funds last year to meet emergency and immediate needs of constituents.” Most expenditures from the funds, Wedderburn reported, went for the members’ own use — office supplies, catering, refreshments and event tickets.
My take? Constituent service funds should be abolished.
Now, let’s segue to another ethics matter.
“Didn’t nobody comp me,” said supervisory Alcoholic Beverage Control inspector Jermaine Matthews, referring to his suspension by the ABC for allegedly accepting four free bottles of vodka from a nightclub that he was inspecting.
Government employees aren’t supposed to accept gifts, including free drinks, from an activity or operation regulated by the city, said Cynthia W. Simms, a community resource officer for ABC.
But that does not hold for our council. Some lawmakers receive complimentary items frequently. Watch as they guzzle free drinks and scarf down free meals. If you run into our officeholders at a concert, sporting event or downtown banquet, ask if they paid for their tickets like the other guests.
Meanwhile, they draw full-time salaries for performing part-time work.
The committee’s bill leaves all that intact.
Bowser (D-Ward 4), obviously, has a different view of her legislation. In a phone interview Thursday, she told me that, in addition to reducing the use of constituent service funds, her bill bars lobbyists from giving council members discounted legal services and makes information about lobbying activity immediately available to the public. She also cited provisions that add reporting and disclosure requirements for legal defense, transition and inauguration committees. Such activities, Bowser said, have drawn well-deserved criticism, and her bill, she said, addresses those issues.
Bowser, smart and pragmatic, knows her colleagues and what they will accept.
Their wants and the public’s interest, however, don’t match.
They have the votes in the chamber. Ours get cast on Election Day.