From the storied patronage of Marion Barry Jr. to a recent contract-steering controversy in the administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), the nation’s capital has long been notorious for what critics say is a pay-to-play culture at D.C. city hall.
On Monday, District lawmakers will begin debating how to change that status quo, as a D.C. Council committee holds a hearing on multiple bills that would limit the awarding of government contracts to political donors.
The discussion comes after a Washington Post poll last month showed that District residents continue to take a dim view of their elected officials’ ties to deep-pocketed campaign contributors. By a margin of 48 percent to 31 percent, those surveyed rated Bowser negatively on her efforts to curb the influence of wealthy political donors.
“Campaign finance reform has come to our attention over and over again as we’re out in the community,” said D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, who drafted one of the bills that will be up for debate Monday at a hearing held by the council’s judiciary committee.
Among other things, Racine’s bill would ban political donors from bidding for city contracts worth more than $100,000 within two years of the election cycle in which they supported a candidate who could decide or influence the awarding of those contracts. The restriction would also apply to other types of business arrangements with the city, such as tax credits or land deals.
Racine — who is often mentioned as a potential challenger for Bowser when she seeks a second term in 2018 — said the need for such legislation was driven home by a recent D.C. Council committee investigation into allegations that a senior member of Bowser’s cabinet tried to steer road work to Fort Myer Construction, a top campaign donor to Bowser and other politicians.
A report released by the committee’s chairwoman, Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), stated that City Administrator Rashad M. Young had intervened in the contracting process to benefit Fort Myer Construction. Cheh also alleged that an unknown District employee may have leaked confidential information to the company about a competitor’s bid.
Young has said he intervened only to ensure the bidding process was conducted fairly, and Bowser has dismissed Cheh’s suggestion of an illegal leak of information to Fort Myer Construction as “a wild accusation.”
But Racine said the report “really illuminates the kind of appearance of a pay-to-play culture that, again, residents of the District of Columbia just don’t want to have attached to them.”
A separate bill introduced by council members Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) aims to limit contributions from companies with contracts worth more than $250,000 between the time the company knows the contract will be available and when it is awarded. The limits would also apply to successful bidders for one year after they receive their final payment from the city.
Gray himself was not long ago at the center of one of the city’s most serious campaign-finance scandals. A federal investigation into Gray’s successful 2010 mayoral run found that city contractor Jeffrey E. Thompson funded a $653,000 “shadow campaign” to elect him.
Thompson pleaded guilty, as did some Gray associates. Gray, who denied knowing about the illegal spending, was never charged, though he blamed his 2014 loss to Bowser on fallout from the investigation. He did not return calls seeking comment on Friday.
Bowser spokeswoman LaToya Foster declined to say whether the mayor supports limiting or banning political donations by city contractors.
“We are monitoring the legislative process and look forward to a continued conversation about how we and our partners on the council can continue to build trust in government,” Foster said in an email.
Craig Holman, government-affairs lobbyist at the nonprofit group Public Citizen, said he was aware of 15 states that regulate political donations by government contractors.
Holman, who helped draft a campaign-finance reform bill for Gray when he was still mayor, said the most effective regulations are those that apply to a company’s executives and their relatives, not just the firms themselves.
“One of the most important elements of an effective pay-to-play proposal is to define government contractors in a broad sense,” Holman said. The draft legislation he wrote never became law.
The bill currently pending that was introduced by Gray and White would allow political donations by family members of company officers, but limit them at $300 per person for each election cycle. Individual contribution limits ordinarily range from $500 to ward council members’ campaigns to $2,000 for the mayoral elections.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who heads the judiciary committee, said he hopes to take the best elements of the bills and put them in a single piece of legislation that would advance to the full council.
“This is a city where we do tens of millions of dollars’ worth of contracts on a regular basis,” Allen said. “When there are some contractors who donate money to the very people who make decisions on whether or not they get the contract or not. That feeds the perception of pay-to-play.”