As a longtime D.C. resident, and as a political consultant who has worked for two mayors, I have become concerned — like most D.C. residents — with this city’s chronic mismanagement. At no other time in our city’s brief history have so many public officials been under investigation at once.
Corruption in city government is not new, nor is it unique to the District of Columbia. Pay-to-play schemes, embezzlement and all manner of insider dealing plague other cities and states. But where many states have taken dramatic and effective measures to tackle corruption, the District has done very little. And D.C. law provides minimal protections to maintain the ethical management of government funds.
As it stands, there are too many opportunities and temptations for government leaders, private contractors and professional lobbyists to engage in activities that hold our city back and advance corruption and greed at the expense of the rest of us. So I propose that the District use the current scandals to propel policies that would stop future corruption in its tracks.
To clean up our government, we must start by cleaning up our politics. Here are 10 steps to improve the ethics and management of District government:
1) End “pay to play”: Ban contributions from any source that has or intends to seek a city government contract. Other states, notably New Jersey, have taken this step after their own scandals became too corrosive and damaging to public trust.
2) Ban contributions from lobbyists: Lobbyists who seek government access and want to influence officials through campaign cash have become a rampant and toxic problem here.
3) Crack down on independent expenditures: The courts have provided that PACs and so-called independent organizations can support candidates and accept and spend unlimited sums from donors. But this is just another way for insiders to curry favor with elected officials. Not only have hastily formed independent groups proliferated, but the independence of many is questionable. Moreover, the names of these groups are obscured to prevent voters from understanding their source. Greater disclosure and oversight should be undertaken on these shadow campaigns to ensure that our politics aren’t undermined by their presence.
4) End constituent service funds: These funds — raised from campaign contributors, government contractors and those seeking special access to elected officials — were established to help council members assist needy constituents, but the situation today is that council members have $80,000 per year to direct. Their use has devolved in some cases into less-than-honorable spending. They’re no more than second campaign accounts, and should be eliminated. If a council member wants to engage in such discretionary spending, why not allow them to do so out of leftover campaign funds?
5) Bar elected leaders from receiving free legal advice: Lawyers provide free or discounted services as a way to ingratiate themselves to elected officials. Often, these lawyers are the same lobbyists or government contractors who seek influence over government decision making. This step should be part of a general ban on gifts to elected officials.
6) Ban the practice of setting up nonprofit organizations to fund nonofficial mayoral travel and related expenses: These funds are largely hidden from public scrutiny and open to abuse and self-dealing. The funds come from the same insiders and government contractors, but their contributions are not limited by the same constraints as campaign or constituent service contributions.
7) All government meetings should be open and held in public: Despite a recent effort at improvement, we still have a weak statute on open public meetings. Boards and commissions still conduct most of their business behind closed doors. To avoid scrutiny, private meetings or caucuses are often used to reach decisions, with members appearing in public only to vote and announce decisions. We should make it illegal for a majority of a board, commission or committee to meet in private. Public business should be conducted in public.
8) Strengthen and enforce city contracting rules: It has become too common a practice for prospective bidders to have insider contact before or during the contracting process. We must be more diligent to prevent bidders or interested parties from interfering with the contracting process, and any inappropriate contact should be grounds for nullifying a resulting contract.
9) Impose a strict “bad boy” provision: Ban anyone who has been convicted of or financially penalized for insurance, financial, contracting or other types of fraud from doing business with the D.C. government.
10) Ban contractors working under false pretenses: Anyone who has misrepresented himself during the contract-award process should be barred from doing business with the city government, period. Why should our city work with a contractor who misrepresented his experience, qualifications or abilities?
It does not matter whom you supported or who wins an election; without a bedrock of strictly enforced ethical standards, any effort to end cronyism will fail. Mayor Vincent Gray should make good on his campaign promises and act now to close the barn door on greed and insider dealing.
The mayor and the D.C. Council should move to create laws establishing a more ethical foundation. These 10 steps would tangibly change the culture of government and ethics in the District. If they are implemented, we would all be better off, and public trust in the District government would improve.
The writer, a political consultant, is a former director of elections for the Democratic National Committee and has worked on the mayoral campaigns of Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty.