The Washington Post

Kwame Brown’s first step toward ethics reform


Kwame Brown on the D.C. Council dais on Jan. 3. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown took a big first step Tuesday toward making good on his promise to get tough on ethics in the city government.

No need here to run through all the ethical shortcomings in that arena of late — though it should be noted that Brown himself is currently facing serious questions regarding the finances of his 2008 council campaign.

That said, the Comprehensive Ethics Reform Act that he co-introduced today with Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) would significantly change the way the District government polices itself.

It would establish a new Office of Government Accountability under the Board of Elections and Ethics. That office would have broad responsibilities — “to investigate any matter involving lobbying, conflict of interest, financial disclosures, and other ethical matters and standards of conduct relating to District government employees, including the Council,” the draft legislation says. And the office would have the power to compel responses from government employees and others, including via court-enforceable subpoenas, and send its findings to appropriate authorities.

The second major part of the legislation establishes an “ethics advisory committee,” consisting of the mayor or a designee; the council chairman or a designee; two non-government employees, one of them a lawyer; and a council appointee who is also a lawyer. The panel would be charged with recommending “proposed changes and updates to District laws, rules, regulations, or policies concerning conduct of lobbyists, government employees, conflicts of interest, ethical conduct of public officials, and other ethics matters.” That would seem to make good on Brown’s promise, delivered in his inaugural address, to establish an ethics committee to police city government.

Last and far from least, the legislation significantly toughens the ethics and financial disclosure laws already on the books. For instance, District government employees would be handed an ethics manual upon hiring and would then have 90 days to complete ethics training. After that, they would have to undergo a yearly refresher course, lest they risk a fine of up to $5,000.

Lobbying disclosure forms would be more stringent and more quickly posted for public review. Elected officials and some government employees would have to disclose their dealings with nonprofit entities and also would have to provide new details on their business relationships with city contractors — including pegging them to a range of dollar amounts. They would have to disclose real estate holdings outside the District and a spouse’s individual debts and properties for the first time. And there would be new rails placed on elected officials’ fundraising activities, which would be permitted only for a “nongovernmental bona fide charitable activity benefiting the District of Columbia,” subject to quarterly disclosures. It would be specifically illegal to use District resources to engage in private fundraising — which would explicitly prohibit appeals on city letterhead a la the “Comcast letter” penned by then-Chairman Vincent C. Gray in 2008.

Perhaps the single biggest change: Elected officials would have to disclose, without exception, “the identity of any client for whom the public official performed a service in connection with the public official’s outside income.” Currently, city law only requires them to disclose clients who do business with the city or have matters before the Council.

In other words, the council’s practicing lawyers — Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and David Catania (I-At Large) — would have to disclose complete client lists for the first time. Evans’ work at the Patton Boggs firm has come under scrutiny from time to time; Catania is in-house counsel for a Northern Virginia technology firm, OpenBand, that is a subsidiary of a city contractor, M.C. Dean.

Reached this evening, Evans said that the idea was a “nonstarter,” saying that most law firms would not allow their attorneys to disclose their clients. ”It’s not my decision,” he said. “It’s their decision.”

That said, Evans signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill, along with Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and Vincent Orange (D-At Large). The bill, which follows a Brown-commissioned study of city ethics by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, has been fowarded to Cheh’s Government Operations committee, where it will likely be a high priority. There is no estimate yet of how much the proposal stands to cost taxpayers.

UPDATE, 12:50 P.M.: The draft bill does contain a loophole for the disclosure of clients where the Board of Elections and Ethics determines that disclosure “would violate any law, rule, or legally recognized privilege under District law.” It is unclear whether a law firm’s policy or nondisclosure agreements would fit into that category.

The draft bill:

Comprehensive Ethics Reform Act
Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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