D.C.’s Office of Campaign Finance is failing its mission

March 17

BY THE time the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance gets around to releasing its audit on Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 campaign, the findings may well have lost any relevance. But then, that is perfectly in keeping with an agency that increasingly has shown itself to be tangential to its core mission of policing local elections.

OCF, an arm of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, launched its administrative inquiry into Mr. Gray’s first mayoral campaign on March 15, 2011 — that’s three years ago, but who’s counting. Its final audit report was completed in draft on May 15, 2012. But even as voting has begun in another mayoral election in which Mr. Gray is a candidate, nothing has been released to the public.

The office has come up with varying explanations.

First came the suggestion that the delay was at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is conducting a criminal investigation separate and apart from OCF. When the U.S. Attorney’s Office swatted down that explanation, elections spokeswoman Tamara Robinson said last month that OCF wasn’t able to provide a complete portrayal of Mr. Gray’s campaign because the criminal probe has made witnesses and documents inaccessible. But because of its “commitment to transparency,” she said, the board was reviewing preliminary findings to determine whether any portions could be made public.

Well, to the surprise of no one, the board spokesman last week informed us “due to ongoing investigations, the Board is unable to release any audit materials at this time.”

With early voting underway for the April 1 Democratic primary, it is too late for a report to be released without it being perceived as unfairly influencing the election. But it’s critical that the D.C. Council investigate the workings of this office. Why didn’t it see the urgency of providing timely information to voters? Couldn’t it have released preliminary findings with a caveat that some witnesses weren’t available? What exactly does it do with its staff and resources?

Ethics has figured prominently in this year’s campaigns for mayor and D.C. Council, with candidates debating various proposals to strengthen campaign finance laws. That’s all to the good, but if those entrusted with enforcing the rules aren’t up to the job, there’s little chance for real change in D.C. politics.

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