D.C. council members playing politics with earmarks
The D.C. Council's censure of Marion Barry was no profile in courage. Barry's 12 colleagues had little choice; anything less would have brought well-deserved public ridicule. The problem with the resolution is that it didn't go far enough. It should have included the council as a whole.
Yes, Barry broke rules, misused taxpayer dollars and lost his mind over a girlfriend. As some are wont to say, "Barry's stuff has always been raggedy."
But the system that Barry abused is the politically self-serving budget earmark process, a D.C. Council concoction that is so badly designed and monitored that millions of dollars have been improperly managed, poorly accounted for and not used for their intended purposes. Barry was not the only player.
New controls have recently been put in place by Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), following months of adverse publicity ["Budget cuts and fake fury in D.C.," March 28, 2009; "What D.C.'s elves do with your taxes," May 17, 2008] and the commendable work of special counsel Robert S. Bennett and D.C. Auditor Deborah K. Nichols.
But eliminating all earmarks from the current budget won't erase the harm done to the council's integrity by its own practices.
In recent years, the city's politicians have used budget bills to award contracts to favored groups based on an informal, noncompetitive process lacking in transparency and objective standards.
For instance, from fiscal 2005 through fiscal 2010, officials used that shady process to award more than 460 earmarks totaling in excess of $166 million. A few years ago, they boosted earmark awards from 44 in fiscal 2007 to 99 in fiscal 2008, a one-year increase of $20 million. The latter was (surprise!) an election year in the District.
How bad is it? The system has financial and management irregularities galore. A Feb. 24 report on earmarks by Nichols helps tell the story.
The audit reviewed 154 earmarks for fiscal 2009 (October 2008 to September 2009) totaling $47.9 million. It found that 125 of those earmarks lacked enough information to describe, let alone justify, their purpose.
For example, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities was given 22 earmarks totaling $5.75 million, all of which lacked written performance standards. "It was not clear what D.C. taxpayers received for their tax dollars," wrote Nichols.
The audit also found that there was "no credible review process" for checking documents for accuracy or completeness before money went out the door. "The auditor found that 84 of the 154 earmark recipients, totaling $17,677,000 did not submit all of the documents required" by the budget act.
The report also disclosed that the earmark process allowed for the creation of "fiscal agents" who could charge earmark recipients for financial management services. It was a joke.