The battle simmering for months between the D.C. government’s ethics board and its investigative watchdog got a full public airing Monday, and it wasn’t pretty.
At a D.C. Council hearing, the dispute between Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby and Board of Ethics and Government Accountability officials became so rancorous at times that the council member who called the hearing described it as “frankly ridiculous” after it was over and criticized Willoughby for being unduly defensive as the city figures out how to best police its own employees.
“It essentially amounts to a schoolyard fight between District of Columbia agencies,” Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) said after the hearing, called to examine legislation meant to improve the ethics board’s functions.
The dispute first came into public view in August, when the ethics board voted to authorize subpoenas against Willoughby’s office after the two bodies failed to come to terms on the sharing of files. The ethics board, at the time, was preparing to adjudicate a case involving a city employee who had allegedly misused a disabled-parking placard and need additional records from the IG’s office, which had done the investigation. But Willoughby resisted requests, he said, for “unfettered” access to files, saying it would interfere with his office’s independence and threaten its relationships with other agencies, including the U.S. attorney’s office in the District.
There were indications last month that the matter had been settled, with the ethics board’s executive director saying in a meeting that there was an “agreed-upon process in place.” But at Monday’s hearing, the debate was as high-pitched as ever, with Willoughby decrying the legislation under discussion as trampling on his office’s prerogatives — adopting a demonstrative tone at times, if not outright yelling from the witness table.
“This is undercutting,” Willoughby told McDuffie at one point. “You’re going to weaken this office.”
Robert J. Spagnoletti, chairman of the ethics board, testified that his body needed more reliable access to investigative records to do its job. He at one point called Willoughby’s claims “extraordinarily unpersuasive” and cited later his “fundamental unwillingness to share information.”
“The IG thinks we will look at something and come to a different conclusion … and somehow that will affect his independence,” Spagnoletti said. He added that the board was happy to abide by some strictures on access to and the handling of the IG’s records but said Willoughby’s posture had made it impossible to reach an ongoing agreement.
Playing mediator of sorts at the hearing — sitting, in fact, between Willoughby and Spagnoletti — was Ariel Levinson-Waldman, a top aide to Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, who mainly agreed with Spagnoletti but argued for more specific exemptions for materials protected under particular legal privileges, “There is no harm whatsoever in the sharing of nonprivileged raw facts” gathered by Willoughby’s investigators, he said, adding that “there is absolutely a way to get it done without threatening the independence of the IG’s office.”
“These are two independent agencies making independent assessments,” Levinson-Waldman said, “and that’s perfectly appropriate.”
In remarks after the hearing, McDuffie, too, was critical of Willoughby’s posture, calling him “particularly intransigent” on the issue and “more concerned about protecting his turf rather than the District having an agency that has all of the tools it needs to investigate violations of the District’s code of conduct.”
McDuffie added that he is inclined to move forward with the legislation, including language giving the ethics board greater access to Willoughby’s investigative files, unless the two parties can come to a more robust agreement.
He said he is “not very confident” that will happen, but there is still some time for the hatchet to be buried: McDuffie said his Government Operations Committee is not likely to mark up the bill until next month.