Congress plunges into D.C. politics and ethics

Monday, March 21, 2011; 8:22 PM

FROM THE moment Republicans rewon control of the House of Representatives, it was clear they were itching to take the District of Columbia down a notch. First they restricted the D.C. delegate's ability to vote; then came proposals to limit how the city could spend its own tax dollars. So it comes as no surprise that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has decided to launch an investigation into allegations of unethical behavior involving the new city administration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). That doesn't make the development less distressing. What's particularly disappointing about the situation is that it was D.C. officials themselves who provided the opening Congress needed to interfere.

Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the committee with direct oversight of the District, disclosed Thursday that his staff will investigate charges by failed mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown that he was given cash and a plum city job as a reward for his attacks on then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) during last year's heated Democratic primary. Mr. Gray and the campaign aides named by Mr. Brown have denied the allegations. In announcing the probe, ostensibly to safeguard the federal dollars that help fund the city's budget, Mr. Issa cited lack of confidence in the city's ability to uncover and evaluate the facts; he said his staff was rebuffed by key figures close to the mayor, including Mr. Gray's recently fired chief of staff, Gerri Mason Hall.

Mr. Issa is right about the public having a legitimate interest in knowing whether taxpayer-funded jobs were used to support illegal or unethical behavior, but involving Congress - even with the promise of a dispassionate review - in this local matter is, at best, premature. No question a void was created when the city's inspector general and attorney general both opted out of investigating because of appearances of a conflict of interest. But the U.S. attorney's office stepped in with its unusual disclosure that it is reviewing the situation.

Then, too, why not give the D.C. Council a chance to do its job? Claims that the congressional investigation is a last resort would be more believable if there had been some discussion with Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chair of the council's government operations committee, which is conducting its own inquiry into the hiring practices of the Gray administration.

Clearly, D.C. officials should be capable of policing their own. Indeed, last week's council hearing revealing more embarrassing details about the demands by Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) for a luxury auto was as fine an example of rigorous oversight as exists, with council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) pushing for answers. Too often, though, the city's leaders have looked the other way at questionable behavior (the fundraising exploits of Ward 5 Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D) being a recent example) or, even worse, condoned it as acceptable politics (witness the boasting about the spoils of victory from Ward 8 member Marion Barry (D)).

Local officials can fault Congress for sticking its nose into their business, with our support. They'd have more of our sympathy if they took better care of their own business to begin with.

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