October 8, 2013

GIVEN ITS ethical challenges, the last thing D.C. government needs is for two key agencies charged with policing good conduct to be at each other’s throats. But the District’s fledgling ethics board and the inspector general seem unable to cooperate. That leaves the D.C. Council no choice but to establish guidelines.

“A schoolyard fight” is how Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) characterized the dispute between Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby and Board of Ethics and Government Accountability Chairman Robert J. Spagnoletti over the sharing of information. Mr. McDuffie’s comments came after a stormy public hearing Monday in which Mr. Spagnoletti accused the inspector general of making the board’s job harder and Mr. Willoughby said that ethics officials were seeking to undermine his office’s independence.

Mr. Willoughby’s fears about providing information to ethics officials are overblown, if not, as Mr. Spagnoletti said, “extraordinarily unpersuasive.” No one is trying to compromise the independence of Mr. Willoughby’s office, only asking that it share the raw facts — not privileged work product — of investigations it has conducted.

The inspector general investigates waste, fraud and mismanagement while the ethics office enforces the code of conduct, but their jurisdiction sometimes overlaps. Moreover, the inspector general has far more investigative resources than the ethics office but — unlike the ethics board — holds no power to levy sanctions. Duplicative investigations make no sense.

The office of the D.C. attorney general essentially came down on the side of the ethics board, seeing “no harm whatsoever” in the sharing of basic information. Clearly, some files — an interview with a confidential informant or information protected by privilege — should be off-limits, but those contours could easily be worked out. Mr. Spagnoletti said his office would agree happily to such limits; he noted it has good relations with law enforcement agencies.

It’s troubling that Mr. Willoughby seems more concerned with his office being second-guessed than in helping the ethics office, off to an impressive start in its first year of operation, do its job effectively.