August 26, 2012

THE JOB of regulating the conduct of political campaigns in the District of Columbia falls to the Office of Campaign Finance (OCF). Central to its mission of ensuring fairness in the political process is the requirement that candidates disclose who is contributing to their campaigns and how that money is spent. So what does it say about how seriously the office takes its responsibilities when it gives a pass to a candidate — who just happens to be a sitting D.C. Council member — on reporting his finances?

Council member Michael A. Brown (I), seeking reelection to his at-large seat in the Nov. 6 election, didn’t file his legally required Aug. 10 report of receipts and expenditures after the campaign office granted him an administrative extension, citing ongoing investigations of suspected misuse of funds. Mr. Brown announced in June that he fired his campaign treasurer and asked police to investigate what he characterized as “substantial” funds missing from his campaign account; he also asked for an audit from the campaign office. “Clearly, allegations of misuse of campaign funds by an individual who has a fiduciary obligation to manage those funds appropriately and who has been the custodian of campaign records, constitutes good cause for an extension” OCF Director Cecily Collier-Montgomery wrote Thursday to David Grosso, a lawyer who is challenging Mr. Brown and who protested the decision by campaign officials.

The effect of this decision leaves voters in the dark about Mr. Brown’s finances. He released a list of people and companies that contributed a total of $30,000 since June 10, but the information hasn’t been certified nor does it include details about expenditures. This puts his opponents at a disadvantage; Mr. Brown knows how much money each of his challengers has on hand, yet they don’t have a clue as to what they might be up against. And what happens if the police investigation and campaign office audit are still ongoing in October, when the next reports are required? Will Mr. Brown again be let off the hook? Assurances by campaign officials that Mr. Brown eventually will have to file a full report won’t help voters who see this information as critical to the choice they will make Nov. 6. What is perhaps most perverse about the decision is that the benefit to Mr. Brown of not having to report his finances on time is the direct result of his own failure to establish a campaign operation equipped to properly manage the finances.

District law, as the Examiner’s Jonetta Rose Barras pointed out, allows campaign committees to amend their reports if and when inaccuracies are discovered. A far better solution for this situation would be to require Mr. Brown to abide by the rules that all other candidates must follow and file a report based on the information on hand, with later changes to be made if warranted.

This year has seen far too many questions raised about the conduct of District government; let’s not add a failure to ensure a fair financial reporting system to the list.