In the first of what is expected to be a stream of ethics reforms proposals from D.C. Council members, Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) has drafted legislation that would severely curtail registered lobbyists influence on the political process and deflate council members’ constituent service funds.
The bill, which Wells plans to formally introduce next week, would prohibit lobbyists from donating to political campaigns or a council members’ constituent service fund.
The legislation also bars lobbyists from providing “free or discounted legal representation to elected officials” or their staffs, according to a summary of the bill obtained by The Washington Post.
“I believe these are reasonable steps to restore confidence in our elected government,” Wells said in an interview.
The provision centering on attorneys appears aimed at several well-known District lawyers who also lobby the council.
Attorney Frederick D. Cooke, for example, has represented both council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) in ethical matters, even though Cooke routinely roams the halls of the Wilson Building trying to influence legislation. Neither Thomas nor Barry have disclosed how much they pay Cooke for his legal services.
“You have to take a call from your attorney,” Wells said. “You don’t always have to take a call from a lobbyist. There should be a distinction.”
In another far-reaching stab at ethics reform, Well is also proposing to slash how much council members can raise each year for their constituent services fund. Currently, council members can raise up to $80,000 annually for the funds, which are designed to help needy constituents pay for unexpected expenses.
But Wells is proposing to set a $10,000 annual limit, diminishing council members’ power to hand out freebies. In addition to lobbyists, corporations with existing or pending contracts before the council would also be prohibited from contributing to the funds.
In recent months, questions have been raised about several council members’ use of their constituent service funds. Last month, The Washington Post reported that council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 6) has spent about 31 percent of his fund on professional sports tickets since 2002.
It’s unclear how many co-sponsors Wells will get for his bill, but it comes as several council members predict that ethics reform will be a central focus for the council this fall.
Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) has said that he will pursue a series of reforms after the council returns from summer recess Tuesday. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) is also drafting legislation stemming from the council investigation into Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s (D) hiring practices. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D) is also expected to have a bill. And the Gray administration has vowed that it will also push for new ethical rules in the fall.
The fate of the various proposals will largely rest with council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who, as chairwoman of the Government Operations Committee, will oversee the hearings on the legislation. Bowser is also coming up with her own proposals.
By trying to set the goal post at what would be a major ethics overhaul, Wells appears to be making good on his earlier promise that he isn’t out to make friends on the council.
Although Wells said he is “very open to amending the legislation to incorporate the concerns of other council members,” he also stressed that he’s not likely to back down on the key components of the bill.
“It’s an election season, so the voters will be able to determine if these issues are important to them,” Wells said. “This will get these issues in front of the candidates during the campaigns.”