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D.C. Council approves sweeping reforms to combat ‘pay-to-play’ politics

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) has led a push for campaign-finance reform at the John A. Wilson Building this year.
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) has led a push for campaign-finance reform at the John A. Wilson Building this year. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council gave preliminary approval to new campaign-finance regulations Tuesday, including restrictions on government contractors’ political contributions, bringing a potential sea change to a city that has witnessed repeated corruption scandals.

The bill would ban campaign contributions from firms and their top executives if they hold or are seeking government contracts worth at least $250,000.

It would also give new authority and independence to the city’s Office of Campaign Finance — long viewed as a weak enforcer — and require increased disclosures from independent expenditure committees.

The bill was written by D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), and incorporated earlier proposals from other council members and D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D). It passed with the support of 11 of the council’s 13 members. Lawmakers Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) and Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) spoke against the bill and asked that they be counted as “present,” voting neither for or against the legislation.

The council must vote on the bill again in December, which means it could still be subject to last-minute changes. If approved, the legislation would go to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who could veto it. The mayor has in the past declined to say whether contributions from government contractors should be limited. Bowser’s office declined to comment Tuesday.

Campaign-finance reform advocates cheered the legislation’s advance, especially the new limits on contractors.

A Democratic mayor absent from the fight against money in politics

“While no law can totally solve this problem, District residents have long wanted a more equitable system for running our government,” Aquene Freechild of Public Citizen said in a statement. “Today’s vote is one giant step closer to D.C. politics that is less driven by big money and more focused on every day District residents.”

The legislation would prohibit donations of any amount to politicians who have a say in the awarding of contracts, leases, tax exemptions and other District resources from organizations — corporate and nonprofit — that are benefiting from or vying for those resources. The prohibition would generally be in place from the time the contract is put up to bid until one year after the contract ends. (Unsuccessful bidders would have to wait until a year after the contract is awarded.) The ban would apply both to the groups themselves and their senior executives.

The bill would also create a new board to oversee the Office of Campaign Finance, which is currently under the Board of Elections; require that independent expenditure committees list their top five donors on political advertisements; and ban the bundling of campaign contributions by lobbyists, among other measures.

Although the bill passed Tuesday with a solid majority, some lawmakers expressed reservations. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who voted yes, said he did so despite concerns that the measure would have little effect on the status quo.

Mendelson said that while he supported disclosure of who spends money to influence elections, the broader quest to limit money’s influence in politics was quixotic.

“This is an ephemeral chase,” he said. “What we are chasing is trying to eliminate influence in politics. If you think about it, politics, representative government, is entirely about influence. . . . If we’re trying to reduce influence in politics, we can’t and we shouldn’t, because our government is founded on influence — that we respond to people and try to do the right thing in responding to people.”

Bowser says she will not investigate evidence of illegal leak to contractor

Allen said that his bill’s goal wasn’t to eliminate cash as a factor in politics, but to address certain areas particularly prone to corruption — such as donations by city contractors. “This isn’t trying to say that there’s going to be no money in campaigns,” he said.

The bill’s provisions, while a radical change for the District, do not go as far as those adopted in some states. If enacted, the legislation would not stop a company or its executives from giving generously to a political campaign and subsequently seeking a contract, as long as the contract had not yet been put out to bid at the time of the contributions. Nor would it prevent mid- and low-level employees of a company, or the relatives of executives, from contributing — both common practices for firms that do business with the city.

Allen said the former restriction would have been too expansive, and the latter too difficult to enforce.

The District has been dogged over the past decade by scandals involving government contractors. A federal investigation of illegal spending by former District contractor Jeffrey E. Thompson in the 2010 mayoral election led to guilty pleas by six people, including associates of former mayor Vincent C. Gray. Gray, now a Ward 7 Council member, was never charged.

In 2014, former council member Michael A. Brown pleaded guilty to accepting $55,000 from undercover FBI agents posing as corrupt contractors seeking business from the city.

Concerns have also emerged about contracts awarded by the Bowser administration.

Last fall, the council voted not to extend the contract of Veritas of Washington, a company that oversaw a period of financial decline and questionable patient deaths at United Medical Center, the city’s public hospital. The firm’s executive chairman, along with his relatives and companies, made more than $35,000 in political contributions to Bowser in 2014.

In the summer of 2016, the head of the D.C. Department of General Services resigned, later saying he had been pressured by City Administrator Rashad M. Young to steer a contract to Fort Myer Construction, a top campaign donor to Bowser and other elected officials.