YOU MAY NOT think of City Hall as your favorite charity, but anybody who for some reason might want to treat a top D.C. bureaucrat to a good trip somewhere may do so with the official, if cockeyed, blessing of the city's Office of Campaign Finance and (it says here) Ethics. That's the astonishing gist of an interpretation of rules on gifts to the city government offered the other day by the office's director, Keith Vance. If Mr. Vance has got it right, individuals and companies -- even those holding contracts with the city -- may give unlimited cash, land and other gifts to the District treasury. And if some of this money happens to cover travel expenses for certain top government officials with "gift authority," the message to them is Go for It.
The revelation of this gvernment-blessed laundry for pocket linings came in the wake of reports that D.C. Public Works Director John Touchstone had acknowledged improperly accepting free travel and hotel accommodations from Datacom Systems Corp., a contractor in this city and others. Mr. Touchstone said the trips involved official business, and he recently reimbursed Datacom for the expenses he and his executive assistant, Maria Timm, incurred. Now Mr. Vance says Mr. Touchstone may ask to be reimbursed by the city for the trips and -- get this -- Datacom is welcome to send Mr. Touchstone's payment back to the city as a legal donation.
Talk about legalized subterfuge, this is a conflict- of-interest law with built-in conflicts of its own. Want to do a little business with the city? Find an eligible and willing D.C. official for a business trip; if that official thinks it may be tricky making ends meet on a District government per diem of $75 for "lodgings, meals and miscellaneous sustenance," tell him or her not to worry; the check for that and more is in the mail -- as a "gift" to the government.
If Mr. Vance is right, the rule is wrong. And Mayor Barry -- who hardly needs any more reports of funny-money traveling in the top levels of his administration -- should put a stop to it.