DISTRICT RESIDENTS supporting overhaul of the city's anachronistic exploratory committee law, which permits the raising and spending of unlimited sums from secret donors, owe a debt of gratitude to possible mayoral candidate and D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5). By all standards of measurement, the saga of Mr. Orange's exploratory committee emerges as the best case for replacing the current law with a new measure that promotes transparency, accountability and an end to unregulated money in District politics.
Mr. Orange let it be known several weeks ago that his exploratory committee had raised more than $125,000. However, Mr. Orange and two others who have created such committees -- former D.C. Democratic party chairman A. Scott Bolden and lobbyist Michael A. Brown -- refused to disclose who was them giving money or how much they were giving. Only council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) voluntarily disclosed the names of contributors and the amount of donations to his mayoral exploratory committee. Mr. Orange, who oversees the council committee responsible for campaign finance laws, first let it be known that he liked the existing exploratory committee statute, which protects anonymous donors and unlimited, undisclosed money. Under pressure from reform-minded council members -- including Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who introduced a registration and full disclosure bill -- Mr. Orange relented and offered a exploratory reform bill of his own. That wasn't enough. Continued public pressure forced Mr. Orange this week to disclose his donor list and to return money from donors who did not want their identities revealed. Therein hangs the real tale.
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What did the current law hide about the funding of Mr. Orange's exploratory committee? Only this: Former council member John Ray, a lawyer for offshore investors who spent $2 million trying to bring slots gambling to the city, had given Mr. Orange $10,000, and his wife, Sarah, gave $5,000. Another slots backer, Pedro Alfonso, his wife and his company chipped in a total of $4,200. In addition, Mr. Orange's list included businesspeople and at least five law firms that have done business with the city. The largest donor, a Maryland businessman who tried to buy a racetrack in Oxon Hill, gave Mr. Orange $15,000, while his wife gave $10,000. This is all information that District voters have a right to know but that the law allows potential candidates to keep secret. Still protected from public knowledge are the identities of donors who gave a total of $100,000 to Mr. Orange. They didn't want the public to know who they are, so Mr. Orange gave back their money. Think about it: These are people who want to participate in the D.C. political system only if they can do so surreptitiously. District campaign finance laws, as well as honest politicians, should reject such deceit.
Oddly enough, Mr. Orange complains unceasingly that Mr. Fenty changed the rules by disclosing his donors and the contributions after the committees had been established. To the contrary, Mr. Fenty had the ethical sense to refuse to take advantage of a bad law. It's regrettable that Mr. Orange completely, and frighteningly, misses that crucial point.