July 24, 2013

EXHIBIT A in why D.C. campaign finance laws need to be toughened is Kwame R. Brown’s campaign for reelection to the D.C. Council in 2008. Exhibit B is the Democrat’s 2010 campaign for council chairman. Both efforts seem to have been rife with infractions of the rules on collecting and spending money. Incredibly, it’s likely that any violations will go largely unpunished because of an enforcement system that lacks teeth or real penalties.

Mr. Brown’s 2008 campaign was fined $53,400 in a little-noticed action June 13 by the D.C. Board of Elections. The board first raised issues with the campaign in 2011 after a D.C. Office of Campaign Finance audit pinpointed the campaign committee’s failure to account for more than a quarter-million dollars in donations and expenses while it funneled $239,000 through a political consulting firm to a company operated by Mr. Brown’s brother.

The board deferred action after referring the matter to the U.S. attorney’s office. That investigation resulted in Mr. Brown’s resignation as council chairman after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of violating a city campaign statute and to felony bank fraud unrelated to the campaign. In closing the case in December, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. urged city elections officials to revisit the issue with administrative proceedings. The board — much to its credit — imposed the maximum fine, citing the “foremost duty to protect the integrity of the electoral process.”

But with $149.52 in its bank account and about $35,000 in debt, the committee is unlikely to pay the fine, and no campaign officials, including Mr. Brown, are liable. Campaign finance reform legislation drafted by D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan would make the candidate responsible for the accuracy of filings with the Board of Elections and subject to financial penalties if there is a failure of due diligence. The D.C. Council has unfortunately failed to act on the proposal, which was submitted by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) last year.

Mr. Brown’s 2010 campaign for chairman was the subject of an audit, released this month by the campaign finance office, that showed the same problems that afflicted the earlier campaign, albeit on a smaller scale. Among the findings was the expenditure of more than $215,000 on “consulting services” to two companies; the committee didn’t produce contracts or invoices detailing what services were provided. Also cited was the issuance of 28 checks, including seven made out to cash, totaling $92,260 by Che Brown, Mr. Brown’s brother, who was not authorized to write checks from the campaign fund. Che Brown also pleaded guilty to bank fraud not related to the campaign.

The campaign finance office’s general counsel will decide whether to recommend board action. At most, that would be another fine that would go unpaid by another campaign committee that also has no cash on hand. We suspect Mr. Brown might have been more attentive to the rules if he knew he were personally on the hook. It might also have made a difference if the Office of Campaign Finance were able to police spending in real time, rather than three years after the fact. It’s time that council members stop dragging their heels and enact this and other needed campaign finance reforms.