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D.C. Council to Consider Ethics Code for Members
Proposal Comes Amid Barry Probe

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

As the investigation into Marion Barry's use of tax dollars intensifies, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray unveiled a proposal Monday to establish the city's first "Code of Official Conduct" for council members.

Under the proposal, which Gray (D) plans to introduce as emergency legislation Tuesday, the council would have a unified written ethics code to guide members for the first time since it was formed in 1973.

The proposal states that council members need to uphold "unusually high standards of honesty, integrity, impartiality" and that the "avoidance of misconduct and conflicts of interest on the part of council members is indispensable." It largely would put into place the formal ethical guidelines that many state and local governing bodies have been guided by for decades.

"This will help create more clarity in the future," said Gray, adding that he might late propose additional rules.

Gray's efforts come as he and other members continue to try to respond to this summer's controversy over council member Barry's decision to award a city contract to a woman he had been dating. Barry (D-Ward 8) has also been battling allegations he funneled council earmarks to nonprofit organizations in his ward that were controlled by his staff.

The controversy exposed what many consider to be gaping holes in how the council polices its members.

Gray said a review by a consultant concluded that the District has a confusing patchwork of ethical guidelines that, depending on interpretation, might or might not apply to council members.

"We think there may even be some conflicts in all these different statues," Gray said.

The internal review is separate from the investigation being conducted by Robert S. Bennett, an attorney at Hogan and Hartson, and five attorneys from his former firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom.

In July, the council granted Bennett subpoena authority to look into Barry's contracts. Last week, investigators issued almost a dozen subpoenas to Barry advisers and organizations that received earmarks at Barry's request, according to sources familiar with the investigation. Investigators were seeking detailed financial information, including bank statements, said the sources, who asked to be remain anonymous because the subpoenas are confidential.

Attorney A. Scott Bolden confirmed that his client, Brenda Richardson, Barry's constituent services director, was served with an expansive subpoena last week. But Bolden said he is not sure whether investigators are entitled to all the information they are seeking.

"We are still reviewing it, and we will respond appropriately," Bolden said.

Barry declined to comment on Bennett's investigation. But Barry is applauding Gray's ethics proposal, saying it has little to do with him.

"It's not related to me. It's not responding to me," Barry said. "It's a clarification of a whole bunch of things we should have been doing a long time ago."

Barry added, "I know all these laws, I have studied them all, but some other council members may not have."

The proposed code also states that members should avoid "using their office for private gain," never give "preferential treatment to any person," and steer clear of matters that impede "government efficiency and economy" or result in a "loss of confidence or impartiality."

It reinforces several existing laws and ethics policies for council members, such as not accepting gifts or loans from someone who is seeking a contract from the city.

Gray also wants the council's general counsel to assume the role of "ethics counselor." If approved by the full council Tuesday, the current general counsel, Brian K. Flowers, will advise members on ethics.

"I don't always know what is permissible . . . so having someone you can go ask questions of is important," said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 4).

One area left unresolved in Gray's proposal is what, if any, sanctions can be meted out for violations. The council has no formal reprimand or censure procedures.

"We are just not ready for that yet," said Gray, adding that council members continue to consider the issue.

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