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Ethics reform the D.C. Council needs

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The ethics reforms that the D.C. Council hopes to pass by year’s end must have teeth. Current law, which only gums offenders, hasn’t worked.

At a minimum, the package should: abolish “constituent service funds”; prohibit those corporations and lobbyists engaged in business with the city from contributing to political campaigns; reduce the salaries of council members; increase the penalties for failure to report or substantiate campaign contributions and expenditures; require council members to publicly disclose all items received whose value exceeds $20; and substantially increase the number of staff auditors and investigators with the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.

Short of enacting all of the above, the council might as well change its name to the D.C. Council of Corruption.

There is no justification for constituent services funds, as I wrote in June. They are slush funds that council members use to feather their political nests.

Constituent service funds, which allow politicians to annually raise and spend as much as $80,000, consist largely of donations from lobbyists, corporations and well-heeled individuals who hope to ingratiate themselves with lawmakers. Council members Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) have defended the funds as part of a “safety net” for needy D.C. residents, according to DC Watch’s Gary Imhoff. But the only net these funds provide is the one under the politician’s backside. Council members use them to gain favor with constituents.

Next, reforms should curb our “pay to play” system. Currently, private interests seeking to do business with the city or to influence policy are able to grease their way with payments to council members. Those payments come in the form of campaign contributions and donations to constituent service funds.

Actually, council members are the ones who solicit the grease when they hit up lobbyists and corporations through “fundraisers.” Moneyed interests are all too eager to comply, knowing that a contribution guarantees an open door, a returned phone call or some other benefit.

Pay-to-play can be slowed down with a ban on contributions from lobbyists and corporations that are doing business with the city and legislators.

Public service shouldn’t be a path to a six-figure salary. But the council has created that situation for itself. Having served on the staff of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia when the Home Rule bill was drafted and passed in 1973, I know that a fat-cat council is not what the Home Rule charter envisioned. Council service was to be considered part-time. Only the posts of council chairman and mayor were to be considered full-time occupations.

We now have council members drawing full-time pay for performing part-time jobs. Today, 12 regular council members pull down $125,583 a year, and Chairman Kwame Brown rakes in $190,000. That makes D.C. Council members the second-highest-paid big-city legislators in the nation.

The kicker is that some of these part-timers, such as Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and David Catania (I-At Large), also have lucrative outside jobs.

One proposed ethics reform would ban council members from outside employment to prevent any conflicts of interest. Listen carefully and you may hear the council grumbling: “Conflict of interest? No conflict with my interests!”

Better still would be to reduce council salaries by half to reflect the true value of the position. If members want to live well, they should go out and get real jobs. Otherwise, full salary for full-time work — no outside employment.

Evans, it must be noted, did make a contribution to the ethics-reform debate. He said that punishments for violating campaign disclosure requirements are too lenient. The Washington Examiner reported this week that Evans speculated that some see the current $5,000 fine for not disclosing required information as a “cost of doing business.” He’s right.

That wrong can be corrected, however, by increasing the cost of doing business in bad ways. A $50,000 fine would get attention — and probably would change behavior, too.

Ethics reform should also require lawmakers to file monthly reports disclosing anything valued at more than $20 and received from a non-family member. Yep, all those free breakfasts, lunches, dinners, drinks, concert seats, sports tickets and the like, including the source of the freebies, would be available for public inspection, especially by citizens who can’t afford the price of access to their elected representatives.

Expect to see attempts to skirt reforms, such as efforts to hide contributions by funneling money through subsidiaries of corporations and the use of straw donors.

To make the reforms work, the city’s election board should be strengthened with an army of investigators and auditors to police the new laws.

The city needs laws that draw blood when broken. And that’s just for starters.

kingc@washpost.com

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