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What next for D.C.’s politician-felons?

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DISTRICT VOTERS will decide Nov. 6 whether to change the city charter to tighten the ethics requirements for those who hold elected office. Exactly how the requirements would change is unclear. Amazingly, the D.C. Council members who recommended the proposed change and the election officials who formulated the wording that will appear on the ballot do not agree on what it means.

The charter is the city’s constitution. The proposed changes, amendments VI and VII, deal with disqualifying a council member or the mayor from office for felony convictions. As part of its overhaul of city ethics laws last year, council members wanted to plug the hole that allows officials convicted of crimes to stay in office as long as they are not in jail and thus are physically able to perform their duties.

They approved a change to the charter, subject to voter approval, that, as D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) explained, makes “ineligible to serve any council member or mayor convicted of a felony while in office.” There was no discussion during the Dec. 20 debate of whether the ban would be a lifetime bar to holding office, nor is that question addressed in the committee report. But the summary statements of the amendments formulated by the Board of Elections that are posted on its Web site and that will appear on the ballot specify that, if passed, the amendments would make anyone convicted of a felony while holding the office “ineligible to remain in office and ineligible to ever hold the office again.”

The wording has taken some council members aback. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) told us that the board’s interpretation is a “stretch” and that he believed the council simply wanted to prevent those convicted of a felony from lingering in office. Future decisions about their political fates would be left up to the voters.

The summary statement — by law, “an abbreviated and impartial summary” that “expresses the chief purpose of the amendment” — was formulated by elections officials during a public meeting in May, published in the D.C. Register and subject to public comment. A spokesman for the board said it was based on the legislative text the council provided. That legislative text is ambiguous; attorneys who reviewed it for us couldn’t agree on its meaning.

Ironically, it seems that neither reading would prevent a political comeback by the two council members recently forced from office in disgrace. Both Harry B. Thomas Jr. and Kwame R. Brown resigned before pleading guilty to federal charges, so technically they weren’t convicted of felonies while in office.

The confusion over the amendments is troubling; voters should have a clear understanding of what they will be voting on. Mr. Mendelson said he will ask the council’s general counsel to examine the issue and, if warranted, recommend further action.

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