October 15, 2012

THE INVESTIGATION of D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) released last week was limited to his activities as a former member of the Metro board, but the body on which he still sits should not ignore its findings. How the D.C. Council reacts to evidence of misconduct documented in the report will be a measure of its promise to improve government integrity. It also will be the first test for the board it created to enforce ethics rules.

The D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, which opened its doors the first of this month, will meet Tuesday. Its first order of business surely must be the report of the four-month investigation, commissioned by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, into Mr. Graham’s role in a 2008 Metro development project. Investigators for an internationally recognized law firm concluded that Mr. Graham violated the transit agency’s code of conduct regarding conflict of interest and impartiality when he attempted to barter the project with the lottery contract that was before the city council.

Mr. Graham, who has denied doing anything improper, no longer serves on the Metro board, so he faces no sanctions there. Whether any laws were broken — an issue the Metro report made clear was beyond its purview — is a matter for law enforcement authorities, who are said to be investigating. Whether Mr. Graham crossed the line that governs the conduct of D.C. officials is, as Post columnist Colbert I. King pointed out, something the city has a duty to determine.

So it was more than a little disappointing to see D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson duck and weave when asked whether he would request that the ethics board examine the issues raised in the report. “I should speak to Graham personally before I answer any more specific questions,” Mr. Mendelson told reporters Monday. Not exactly a clarion call of leadership for good ethics; our question to Mr. Mendelson’s office about whether he read the report went unanswered.

The ethics board, chaired by former attorney general Robert Spagnoletti, doesn’t need a request or a referral to initiate an investigation that could lead to fines, censure or criminal referral; it can act on its own. If the board is serious about setting a new tone for government and if it wants to to be taken seriously, it has no choice but to look into Mr. Graham’s troubling conduct.