D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan criticized “major flaws” in a draft ethics bill under consideration by the D.C. Council Monday. The comments came one week after he unveiled dramatic allegations of corruption against a sitting council member.
While calling the bill, co-introduced by Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) and Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), a “first step,” Nathan testified that it would create a “competing bureaucratic upstart” that would frustrate his own office’s efforts to root out public corruption.
Nathan said the council should “scrap” the bill, which would create an Office of Government Accountability to police ethical matters and a ethics advisory committee to make recommendations on city law and procedures. “A new bureaucracy is not the answer to the District’s ethics problems,” he said. Rather, Nathan said, his own office needed more “powers, resources and respect” — in particular, expanded subpoena authority for ethics probes.
He urged legislators to take more time to draft a bill that offers a “comprehensive and sensible approach to the ethics problems that we all now face.”
Last Monday, Nathan in a civil lawsuit accused Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) of funneling $316,000 in city funds intended for youth baseball programs for his personal use, including the purchase of a luxury SUV. Thomas denies the charges, but the allegations have further fueled an uproar over ethical lapses in city government. Also, last week, hearings continued into allegations that Mayor Vincent Gray’s (D) campaign paid off an opponent and the Office of Campaign Finance announced it was forwarding a probe into Brown's 2008 campaign for enforcement.
In an interview last week, Cheh said that the legislation introduced last month was “not perfect” but was a bona fide attempt at strengthening the city ethics regime. “Is it something that’s the end-all and be-all? I don’t think so, but it’s a start,” she said.
At the hearing, Nathan called on city officials to “demonstrate a renewed commitment to creating an ethical environment and adhering to the highest ethical standards.”
Nathan also announced that he has hired a new ethics specialist in his office. Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, will update ethics materials and conduct training within the government, Nathan said.
Kenneth McGhie, an attorney for the Board of Elections and Ethics, offered a statement from Togo D. West Jr., the board's well-respected chairman, who also criticized the new office. West noted that the mayor would appoint the OGA's head with Council confirmation. Members of the advisory committee would also be appointed by the mayor and Council. "This is a step away from the objective of independent advice freely devised and unhesitatingly propounded," West said in the statement."