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First impressions on a hot topic

The ethics reform that D.C. needs most

The Post asked Tom Sherwood, William P. Lightfoot, Dorothy Brizill, Muriel Bowser, Martin Austermuhle, Bryan Weaver, Robert Kabel and Kathy Patterson: What is the most important thing that can be done to improve the level of ethics in D.C. government?

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An occasional feature in which The Post asks for first impressions on a hot topic.

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TOM SHERWOOD

Political reporter, NBC News4

Disclose. Disclose. Disclose.

In a democracy, everyone should participate, but everyone should know who is participating — and how.

Currently, the District’s disclosure laws, regulations and forms are a hodgepodge of IRS-like confusion and inefficiency. True investigations into possible infractions are hampered or never started. Violations lack any real legal bite.

Disclosure — the most important reform — needs to be made simple. Reports must be made immediately available online. The rules must include threats of stiff and swift penalties, by an agency actually staffed to monitor it all. A candidate who can’t run a legal campaign or his own office as an elected official shouldn’t be running our city’s $10 billion budget.

In times of crisis, like now, there are always calls to ban or limit contributions and participation by this or that person or group. But we don’t need Prohibition-style laws cramping the District’s already limited democracy. We need clarity.

And then, ultimately, we can trust the people. As I often say to those on the sidelines, local Washington is only as good as the people active in it.

WILLIAM P. LIGHTFOOT

Former D.C. Council member (I-At Large)

In a democracy, the way people hold elected officials accountable is by casting votes, either for them or against them. In return for votes, elected officials are expected to serve competently and respect the public trust. We trust public officials to place the common good above their personal interest. Any official who violates this trust must be held accountable, regardless of race, gender or party affiliation.

Recent news reports and court proceedings have cast doubt on the integrity of some elected officials in the District. The D.C. Council is considering many proposals to address misconduct in public office. Meritorious proposals include: full disclosure of conflicts of interest, limiting campaign contributions by lobbyists and government contractors, and establishing clear lines of authority for law enforcement.

In the end, we cannot legislate morality, but we can elect people with a strong moral compass. They are people who do not lie, steal or cheat. The voting booth is the single most effective tool to enforce ethics in government.

We, the voters, set the standard of conduct for elected officials. Questionable, unethical or illegal conduct must be punished by us. When in doubt, we must vote the bums out.

DOROTHY BRIZILL

Executive director, DCWatch

Effective ethics reform in the District requires new laws and regulations that take on the culture of corruption by requiring greater disclosure by political campaigns, public officials and government employees.

It is essential that our laws and regulations be strengthened to require full and complete disclosure of all contributions to and expenditures by political campaigns. Similarly, all funds, both public and private, raised and expended by transition and inaugural committees should be reported in timely, detailed filings with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance. We must also remove reporting loopholes and require all elected officials and senior policymakers to file more detailed financial disclosure statements that include all household members and their sources of income, gifts of $25 and more, professional services received at less than market rates, and any outstanding tax obligations, debts and legal judgments.

But we need to go further. Ethics reform must address some highly questionable practices that have developed in recent years. The laws covering lobbying, constituent services funds and the personal finances of D.C. officials clearly need to be strengthened. Currently, D.C. law defines lobbying narrowly; you don’t have to register as a lobbyist if your actions aren’t directly tied to a piece of legislation currently before the council. Anyone paid to influence the government should have to register as a lobbyist. Furthermore, constituent services funds, if they are not abolished outright, should at very least be limited to the actual constituent needs that council members always highlight when they rise to defend them. They should also be audited quarterly.

MURIEL BOWSER

D.C. Council member (D-Ward 4) and chair of the council’s Committee on Government Operations

Right now, enforcement of the District’s ethics laws is splintered among too many agencies, and penalties are too weak to matter. There is a straightforward fix for this. In my ethics reform bill, I’ve taken the best parts of the dozen reform bills before my committee, centralized enforcement in a new, lean agency that will be the city’s ethics sheriff, and empowered it with strict civil and criminal penalties that will be prosecuted locally. With a single line of accountability and enforcement, there will be no question as to who polices D.C. elected officials.

If an elected official screws up, he or she will pay the price. Penalties will be clear and tough, including stripping a member’s committee chairmanship, vote in committee and staff budget for certain violations. Comprehensive ethics reform must also include limits on fundraising, iron-clad disclosure requirements for public officials and training for the District’s 30,000 employees.

Without the support of my colleagues, however, these are just ideas. Opportunities abound in politics for horse-trading or putting off for tomorrow what should be done today. In this case, the spotlight is bright, and the time is ripe for action.

MARTIN AUSTERMUHLE

Associate editor, DCist.com

A few weeks ago, a local journalist snapped a picture of an “Ethics Quick Test” flyer posted in a break room at the Wilson Building. It advised public employees to ask themselves some basic questions: Is it legal? Does it comply with our values and code? How would it look in a newspaper? Would I want a significant other to know?

Yes, the flyer was a little simplistic — but that’s the point. Government ethics aren’t as complicated as we make them out to be. Normal residents generally know to pay their taxes, not to take money that’s not theirs and spend it on luxuries, not to hire unqualified friends and otherwise find creative ways around established laws. How come this seems to escape elected officials?

D.C. needs a strong, clear-minded and opinionated public advocate — whether inside or outside the government — to call out apparent ethics violations when they occur. Ethics aren’t the same as laws; this advocate could speak for the public when there is simply an appearance of impropriety.

The best way to keep elected officials honest it to make them think as simplistically as the flyer advised, and should they not, to call them out for it.

BRYAN WEAVER

D.C. activist and former D.C. Council candidate

The District’s center of power is built on a culture of passing paper-tiger laws: grand, powerful — full of sound and fury — but doing nothing. Instead of the District’s power brokers working to understand and follow existing law, city leaders focus on how to game the system and exploit loopholes. What’s the use of passing laws if you’re going to look the other way?

For instance: D.C. law limits the amount limited liability corporations (LLCs) can give to candidates. Research I have done suggests that a number of D.C. Council members routinely flout this law by taking thousands or tens of thousands of dollars above the legal limit from LLC partners. But citizens do not have access to information on an LLC’s structure; therefore it is impossible to present a case to the Office of Campaign Finance. And, besides, the Office of Campaign Finance has expressed little interest in doing its duty to enforce this provision.

It is time for a swift, harsh and radical overhaul of the city’s culture and conduct. Time to push the long arc of good government for D.C. toward sunlight. We need clear lines of what is permissible, not another layer of bureaucracy.

ROBERT KABEL

Chairman, the D.C. Republican Committee

As a District resident, I am saddened by the ethical issues that have been revealed over the past several months and even more so by the lack of action by the D.C. Council to address them. The lack of high ethical standards and prompt investigation and resolution of alleged violations make the mayor and council the subject of ridicule across our nation.

At the core of ethics reform is the need for two major improvements: First, reduce the influence of money in politics; and, second, establish strong enforcement mechanisms so that infractions are addressed quickly and with meaningful punishment. Ethics reform enacted by this council should be comprehensive, covering the mayor, his administration, D.C. Council and all those who come before it.

KATHY PATTERSON

Former D.C. Council member (D-Ward 3)

The D.C. Council should take ownership of its own standard of conduct. Only the council can restore trust in the council and ensure that trust is retained. How do you build into an institution the expectations of ethical behavior? Shared responsibility and peer pressure, reflected in council rules. 

One recommendation: a council “Committee on Management and Public Affairs,” as recommended by the National Conference of State Legislatures a decade ago. This would essentially be an executive committee to oversee the internal affairs of the council, including ethics but also encompassing oversight of council officers and executive branch confirmations. I supported this proposal at the time because it would effectively share the powers and the responsibilities now vested in the chairman alone.

Having a committee selected by legislators with the express responsibility of acting on behalf of the body can mitigate the personal difficulty individual councilmembers face when controversies arise. The public and council members can and should look to the three or four members of that executive committee for leadership. (Occasionally when the planets are aligned individuals do live up to our expectations!)

Public confidence will be restored only when the council itself is “taking care of business,” including the conduct of its members.

 
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