December 9, 2011

“According to Jack Johnson’s guilty plea, from 2003 through at least November 12, 2010, Jack Johnson was part of a conspiracy in which Baig, Ricker and other business persons offered things of value, including money . . . meals, drinks . . . and in-kind campaign contributions to Jack Johnson and other state and local government officials.

“Further, Ricker and his co-conspirators concealed campaign contributions to the state and local officials that were above state and federal legal limits by using conduits and in-kind contributions. Specifically, Ricker admitted that he recruited ‘straw donors,’ including family members and employees, to make state and federal campaign contributions with funds provided by or reimbursed by Ricker and his co-conspirators.”

—excerpts from a May 17 U.S. Justice Department news release

There are lessons in the downfall of former Prince George’s County executive Jack Johnson that the D.C. Council apparently has failed to learn, if the ethics reform bill moving through the council is any measure.

At the heart of the corruption in Prince George’s County was the desire of developers, business owners and their companies to get favorable county actions in exchange for bribes to greedy and dishonest politicians.

During the D.C. Council’s mark-up of the ethics reform bill this week, council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) offered three amendments that target the money-and-corruption issue.

One amendment would have prohibited contractors with city business from making contributions to the elected officials or candidates who will have decision-making powers over the granting and approval of those contracts.

Wells said the current practice “comes as close as you can get to pay-to-play. Businesses are giving money directly to the people that make decisions whether or not to have the city contract with that business.”

Wells’s second, and much-needed, amendment would have eliminated “constituent service” slush funds that council members use to curry favor with voters. Council members’ slush funds attract contractor and business money like flies.

So, how did the 13-member council respond to these two constructive proposals? Both amendments to the ethics bill were crushed 12 to 1, with Wells being the only vote in favor.

Wells offered a third amendment that would have banned the semi-secret practice of “bundling.” That’s the scheme in which business interests skirt campaign-finance limits by making separate contributions through their affiliated or subsidiary corporations. Bundling gives an outsized voice to business fat cats.

The D.C. Office of Campaign Finance spoke in favor of Wells’s anti-bundling amendment, stating that the measure would help it provide better oversight and accountability as it monitors campaign financing.

And how did the council react? Not one other member spoke in favor of that amendment.

Several members, according to Wells’s chief of staff, Charles Allen, asked Wells to withdraw the amendment and consult with them on further changes before the bill’s next scheduled vote on Dec. 20. Wells agreed, Allen said, but he added that Wells plans to reintroduce his other two amendments at that time.

And well he should. The three amendments inject integrity and accountability into a D.C. political culture sadly lacking in both.

That so many council members seem content to continue the discredited pay-for-play system that shamed Prince George’s County and threatens our own city is disgraceful. They can redeem themselves by supporting Wells on Dec. 20.

Likewise, the council should get behind an amendment that Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-At Large) plans to offer at the next meeting.

The Orange proposal retains and strengthens the current Board of Elections and Ethics under its new chairmanship — the experienced and highly regarded former city auditor Deborah Nichols. Orange wisely would make the chairman a full-time position, add 12 auditors and investigators to the board’s staff, and give the board all of the powers that are contemplated for a new agency created in the ethics reform bill sponsored by council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4).

Orange rightly contends that starting up a governmental entity in the midst of the 2012 election year would be unwise, costly and unnecessary.

Bowser, who is chairman of the Government Operations Committee and is navigating the proposed ethics reform bill through the council, shouldn’t allow pride of authorship — or childish internal council rivalries — to stand in the way of doing what’s right. Orange’s proposal makes sense.

So, too, does Jack Johnson’s prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, who said after Johnson pleaded guilty in May: “Electing and appointing men and women of good character is important. But the key to honest government is to create a culture of integrity by establishing checks and balances that promote accountability.”

The D.C. Council, sitting under its own ethics cloud, should heed Rosenstein’s words.

The Wells and Orange proposals go a long way toward that end.

kingc@washpost.com