November 1, 2013

When it comes to money in local politics, nothing is more corrosive to the integrity of government, and more likely to lead to scandal, than pay-to-play campaign contributions. This is a huge problem in the District.

Pay-to-play is the all-too-common practice of an individual or business making campaign contributions to a public official with the hope of gaining a lucrative government contract. Usually, though certainly not always, pay-to-play abuses do not take the form of outright bribery. Rather, pay-to-play more often involves an individual or business seeking favored consideration.

The District is embroiled in a series of scandals that have caused immense harm to the image and credibility of city government. It is important to keep in mind that such scandals do not only damage the public’s confidence in government. They often end up wasting taxpayer dollars, cause members of the business community to think twice about engaging in government services and endanger otherwise promising careers of public officials who come to see pay-to-play as business as usual — at least until a scandal erupts.

Currently, the federal government, the Securities and Exchange Commission, 15 states and dozens of communities from Los Angeles to Philadelphia have some form of restrictions on campaign contributions from government contractors. Many of these were put in place in response to their own sensational cases of government corruption.

Even though the District has only begun to emerge from the 2010 election’s devastating pay-to-play scandal, the conditions for more pay-to-play abuses are as ripe as ever. The District continues to have no restrictions on campaign contributions or expenditures from businesses seeking government contracts.

Government contractors, real estate developers and businesses hoping to land lucrative deals with the D.C. mayor and council can make — and are making — direct corporate contributions to favored candidates, and bundling even more in campaign contributions to the same candidates from company owners and managers and their spouses and family members. All of the leading mayoral candidates in the current election, with the exception of Council Member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), are in a campaign fundraising frenzy, relying in no small part on the generosity of contractors and business interests seeking contracts. The District’s pay-to-play culture is again running amok.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In response to the scandal swirling around the Wilson Building, Mayor Vincent Gray (D) and Attorney General Irvin Nathan have drafted legislation that would shut down campaign contributions by contractors. Known as the Comprehensive Campaign Finance Reform Amendment Act, it includes all the key components of the toughest pay-to-play laws that have proven effective in other states and localities and would squarely address the recent election scandals seen in the District.

If adopted, the reforms would prohibit contractors from making campaign contributions to, or expenditures on behalf of, any D.C. candidate or official who is or could be involved in awarding the contract. “Government contractor” is broadly defined to include all senior executives of the company seeking a contract. Even the spouses and dependent children of executives would be limited to contributions of $300 per election. The law also would require contractors to certify that they and their executives are in compliance with the law. Moreover, the proposal includes strong enforcement actions against egregious violators.

Now, after months of hearings, council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) has proposed his own campaign finance measure. It offers several important improvements to contribution limits and disclosure requirements, and is a necessary reform measure in its own right. But it would do nothing to stop pay-to-play. The District cannot bring an end to its culture of corruption until the temptations offered by campaign money from contractors are put to rest.

By taking this one simple step — divorcing campaign contributions from government contracts — the District would take a giant leap toward the goal of restoring confidence in the integrity of the District’s contracting process. It would also help public officials avoid the political minefield of the appearance of corruption, whether justified or not, that accompanies pay-to-play practices. By breaking the nexus between campaign contributions and government contracts, the District could return to the more important business of civic governance.

The writer is government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.

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