June 15, 2012

“I BELIEVE I am the . . . only candidate that has ever been charged with a misdemeanor,” former D.C. Council chairman Kwame R. Brown said of the decision by federal authorities to prosecute him for violating local campaign finance laws. Mr. Brown is correct that his prosecution — along with a separate case recently brought against a top aide in Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 campaign — is something of a first. But rather than ask, as some have, why the U.S. attorney deigned to undertake these prosecutions, the real question is: Why has it taken so long for authorities to get serious about ensuring a fair electoral process?

Mr. Brown last week pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting an unlawful cash expenditure in excess of $50 in connection with his 2008 at-large reelection campaign. The previous month Thomas W. Gore, who handled finances for Mr. Gray’s mayoral campaign, pleaded guilty to making a contribution in the name of another person. Federal prosecutors said their research showed the charges to be the first brought under the local statutes.

That there have been no other cases is due to several factors. The District’s Office of Campaign Finance, which monitors the activities of local campaigns, historically has had neither the resources nor, its critics allege, the desire to provide vigorous oversight. It was not campaign finance officials but rather Mr. Brown’s opponent in the 2010 race for council chairman, current member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), who first detected discrepancies in Mr. Brown’s campaign accounts. Spotty monitoring has resulted in a lack of referrals to federal officials who, their critics say, have been disinclined to devote resources to what have been seen as minor offenses. Case in point was the office’s decision not to bring criminal charges against those implicated in the massive forgery of petitions in former mayor Anthony A. Williams’s 2002 campaign.

It’s encouraging that more attention is being paid to political crimes. D.C. campaign finance officials ended up doing a commendable job with their audit of Mr. Brown’s campaign, and the Board of Elections and Ethics rightly referred the matter for federal prosecution. (Questions about thousands of dollars in spending remain unanswered, so it’s important that local and federal authorities continue to press the case). The D.C. Council recently voted for an increase in funding for the campaign finance office that will allow it to beef up oversight.

The laws, though, need to be toughened. Fines should be increased, and the ambiguity that lets candidates escape responsibility for the conduct of their campaigns needs to be eliminated. Provisions governing straw donors are inadequate, with the penalty the same for those who illegally contribute $55 or $55,000. We also suggest mandatory training for campaign treasurers and candidates on what is required of them. Finally, there’s no reason the city’s attorney general shouldn’t be given concurrent authority, along with federal authorities, to go after those who think it’s okay to play fast and loose with election laws.