Why D.C.'s Office of Campaign Finance needs a major overhaul

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

SEKOU BIDDLE, Vincent Orange and all the other Democrats vying for the open at-large seat on the D.C. Council weren't actually candidates. And the process used to select Mr. Biddle wasn't really an election but an appointment. That's part of the twisted logic the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance used in deciding there was nothing wrong with the D.C. Democratic State Committee using government offices for its partisan purposes. The ruling is the latest questionable decision by an office that is fast losing any credibility for its ability to ensure a level political playing field.

Officials of the local Republican Party had brought a complaint against the long-standing practice of the D.C. Democratic committee of using taxpayer-supported offices for its activities. This included regular meetings in the John A. Wilson Building and an at-large candidates forum last December in the Old Council Chambers at Judiciary Square. So blatant is the practice that the state Democratic committee posted on its Facebook page a picture of workers stuffing fundraising letters in the Wilson Building. D.C. law prohibits the use of government resources, including facilities, "to support or oppose any candidate for elected office, whether partisan or nonpartisan," so it seemed the GOP complaint was more than justified.

Office of Campaign Finance officials, though, bent over backward to find a way out. General Counsel William O. Sanford wrote in a letter to D.C. Republican Chairman Bob Kabel that those seeking the party's appointment to temporarily hold the seat left vacant by Kwame R. Brown's election as D.C. Council chairman didn't meet the legal definition of a candidate. (A special election to permanently fill the seat will take place on April 26.) Mr. Sanford argued that because an appointment process was at issue, the city's prohibition on the use of government resources didn't apply. Even assuming, as Mr. Sanford asserted to us, that the office had no choice but to abide by a strict interpretation of D.C. law, surely it's inappropriate for Democrats to hold regular sessions and prepare fundraising material in the Wilson Building? But here again, the office took a pass, accepting the reasoning that the Democratic committee is akin to "women's groups" and "ex-offenders' groups" that use the building on a first-come, first served basis.

This is not the first time a decision by the office has raised eyebrows. It looked the other way when then-D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) used his office stationery to solicit an illegal donation for the Democratic state committee but lowered the boom on the novices who reused campaign signs to support their rag-tag write-in campaign for former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). It didn't hesitate to launch a full-fledged investigation of then-D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, who raised private funds to give pay increases to teachers, but it has yet to decide whether it will investigate why D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) didn't disclose donations to his questionable nonprofit from companies who had business with the city.

It's clear there needs to be a major overhaul of this office. Mayor Gray could start by bringing much-needed bipartisan balance to the Board of Elections and Ethics, which oversees the office, and by appointing a Republican, as required by law. And council Chairman Brown, who has made ethics reform a priority, should make clear that government offices are not the place for political parties, whatever their affiliation, to do their business.

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