Representatives of D.C. business organizations on Monday argued against proposed limits on political donations by companies that do business with the District, saying widespread suspicions that contractors have undue influence at city hall are unwarranted.
Their view — voiced in a hearing before the D.C. Council’s judiciary committee — is at odds with that of most District residents. It may also strike some as odd in a city whose political life has been visited with clocklike regularity by campaign-finance scandals involving wealthy contractors (or, in one case, FBI agents posing as wealthy contractors).
A Washington Post poll last month showed that District residents remain suspicious of elected officials’ dealings with campaign contributors. By a margin of 48 percent to 31 percent, they rated Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) negatively on her efforts to curb the influence of wealthy political donors.
Nevertheless, opponents of the pay-to-play regulations being mulled by city lawmakers relied on an argument long favored by critics of campaign-finance laws: That proven instances of elected officials making decisions based on campaign donations are rare, if not nonexistent.
“Show me one case of where there’s been true pay-to-play,” said D.C. Chamber of Commerce President Vincent B. Orange, who resigned from the council last year under pressure because conflict-of-interest allegations arose after he accepted the chamber job while chairing the council committee that regulates businesses.
“To continue harping on this issue where it does not, in fact, exist, and to lose out on all the good things that are being said about the District of Columbia, and its continued prosperity and growth for our citizens, is a missed opportunity,” Orange said in an interview.
He was not at the hearing but Erika Wadlington, the chamber’s director of public policy and programs, represented the organization and testified against the legislation.
Roderic L. Woodson, a District lawyer who sits on the board of the D.C. Building Industry Association and chairs its political action committee, said he thought public concerns about corruption would persist regardless of any new campaign-finance restrictions adopted by the council.
“I don’t think the perception is going to be dispelled by all this legislative hand-wringing,” said Woodson, who said he testified at the hearing as a private citizen and not on behalf of the Building Industry Association or any other groups. “We’ve had a perception of corruption in this city as long as we’ve had home rule.”
He added, “I deal with all of these council members. I’ve never known a single one who could be bought for a contribution.”
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chairman of the judiciary committee, said he remained convinced that pay-to-play regulations are needed, despite the opposition.
“I thought it was odd that memories are so short. But it was an interesting line,” he said after the hearing. “We had three members of this very council just a few years ago that were all either censured, reprimanded or arrested due to the confluence of money and contracts.”
Former council member Jim Graham, who died last month, was reprimanded by his colleagues in 2013 for allegedly intervening in a land deal on behalf of a political donor. The same year, former council member and four-term mayor Marion Barry Jr. was censured by the council and fined $13,600 for accepting illegal gifts from contractors, and council member Michael A. Brown pleaded guilty to taking bribes from federal investigators posing as businessmen seeking government contracts.
More recently, Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) released a report last month that highlighted what Cheh said were unusual interventions by city officials in the contracting process on behalf of a political donor to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). Bowser rejected the report’s findings.
Allen said he plans to take elements from several of the bills before his committee and advance them as a single piece of legislation after the council returns from its summer recess in September.
One bill, drafted by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine (D), would ban companies from bidding on District contracts for two years after they had donated to the campaigns of elected officials who could decide or influence the awarding of the contracts.
A separate bill introduced by council members Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) and Trayon White (D-Ward 8) would also limit political contributions from executives of companies that do business with the District, as well as their relatives.
Gray, a former one-term mayor, was himself at the center of a scandal that involved the District’s most notorious contractor: Jeffrey E. Thompson, who funded an illegal $653,000 “shadow campaign” to elect Gray in 2010. Thompson and some of Gray’s associates pleaded guilty, but Gray denied wrongdoing and was never charged.