D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) has ordered the legislature’s members and employees to file internal financial disclosures for the first time, raising some sharp objections from his colleagues.
In a memo to council members circulated late Wednesday, Brown said the new disclosures are intended “to avoid potential conflicts of interest and to ensure compliance with local and federal laws.” The reports would not be publicly available, but would be used by council attorneys “to determine whether a subordinate has a financial conflict of interest” and provide appropriate advice.
“We want to make sure we’re doing all we can do to ensure we’re maintaining the highest ethical standards,” Brown said in an interview.
The new requirement follows a legal review by the council’s chief lawyer, V. David Zvenyach, that addressed a “lack of consistency in interpretation” of local and federal ethics laws as they apply to city legislators. It comes amid a broader effort on the council to address the city’s ethical strictures after a series of embarrassing controversies in city government.
Notably, Zvenyach concluded that the federal conflict of interest law applies to the council and all its staff, requiring them to avoid participating in matters that involve their spouses, children, business partners or potential future employers. The local conflict of interest law has a different scope, covering members and staff earning more than $72,100 a year.
District personnel rules currently require confidential disclosures from employees who perform “purchasing functions, or functions in which meaningful decisions are made respecting private organizations.” But Brown, in his memo, said he is requiring the disclosures for all employees in order to “err on the side of caution.”
Brown and Zvenyach said that the disclosures are meant in part to implement a “code of official conduct” adopted by the council last year after allegations of contracting and earmarking improprieties by council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). That code, contained in the council rules, holds that members and staff “shall take full responsibility for understanding and complying with the letter and spirit of all laws and regulations governing standards of conduct for District public officials.”
Under Brown’s directive, employees who are “unlikely to perform any functions that would potentially lead to a conflict of interest” are permitted to seek a waiver on a case-by-case basis. The disclosures, according to the memo, will be kept in a “locked file cabinet,” available only to an employee’s supervisor.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who also serves as Brown’s chairman pro tempore, sent a letter to her colleagues yesterday, questioning the underlying legal analysis.
“On my reading of the law, we are not covered” by federal law, she wrote. “I believe that we should be cautious in allowing ourselves to be swept up in a much larger regulatory mechanism, which may be a good model for us, but over which we have no control.”
But Cheh did not explicitly oppose Brown’s plan for greater financial disclosures. “[I]f the Chairman or this body wants to direct that we engage in disclosure and protection against conflicts that the federal law envisions ... I would support it,” she wrote. “But we have enough federal interference in the operation of our local government without actively seeking to increase it.”
Zvenyach, who previously served as Cheh’s chief of staff, said there’s “not a shadow of a doubt” that the federal conflict-of-interest law applies to staff members. Its application to council members, he said, is less clear.
D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) also raised objections to Brown’s request, questioning whether he had the authority to order the additional disclosures.
“I don’t know what authority the chairman has to do that which only the full council can do,” he said.
Brown downplayed the objections, noting that neither Cheh nor Mendelson are specifically opposed to the disclosure measures. “The real idea is how to move forward in being open and transparent,” he said.
The memo, legal opinion and Cheh’s reply:
This post has been updated since it was first published.