D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange, under fire for refusing to step down from public office even as he starts a new job in two weeks as president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, says he will relinquish his council role regulating business to quiet concerns about a conflict of interest.
Orange (D-At Large) said Wednesday that he wants to fold the committee he chairs on business, regulatory and consumer affairs into the full council.
That would mean Orange would no longer set the legislative agenda for the committee, and he would not directly preside over votes on bills that affect the business community.
But he rejected calls to resign — coming from the public as well as some colleagues on the council and the D.C. attorney general — saying it would leave his 14 staff members unemployed.
“In order to reduce the amount of noise and to avoid the appearance of impropriety, I think this would be the better course of action, plus it keeps my staff employed,” Orange told The Washington Post after he made similar remarks on WAMU’s “The Kojo Nnamdi Show.”
His term on the council expires in January because he lost his Democratic primary race in June.
Despite the fact that Orange will continue to be paid by taxpayers for the next five months, he argued that the problematic period is really only “two and a half months,” because the council is on a summer break that ends in September.
“I don’t see a conflict, and if this is a conflict, it will be dissolved in a few short months,” said Orange, who gets paid $135,000 annually as a council member.
In the fall, the D.C. Council is poised to take up major legislation that affects the business community, including the nation’s most ambitious program for paid family sick leave and a controversial mandate that would require major employers to provide more predictable work schedules to hourly workers.
At least six members of the council, several labor advocates and the editor in chief of the Washington Business Journal have urged Orange to resign one of his jobs or scale back his interaction with business legislation.
On Wednesday, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) said the most prudent course of action for Orange was to resign from office.
One of Racine’s former staffers, Robert White, defeated Orange in the Democratic primary after he campaigned against the incumbent as ethically challenged. White, who is overwhelmingly favored to win the seat in the November general election, stopped short of demanding a resignation.
“Given residents’ distrust of city politics and a history of insider dealings in our government, any potential conflict of interest like this needs to be judged against the spirit of the law in addition to the letter of the law,” White said in a statement. “This looks like an obvious conflict of interest to the average resident.”
In interviews, council members who were critical of Orange’s dual roles said his call to dissolve his committee was a good first step but did not resolve all conflicts. They expressed concerns that the bills before the business, consumer and regulatory committee would get lost in the shuffle and that the council’s integrity would still suffer.
But Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who will decide whether to restructure committees when the council returns from summer recess, has defended Orange’s second job as legal. And he applauded Orange’s request to essentially step aside as chair of the business committee.
“It is to Council member Orange’s credit that he volunteered to do that,” Mendelson said.
Members of the D.C. Council are allowed to hold second jobs, and Orange said he’s consulting with ethics officials to make sure he does it properly.
Ellen Efros, general counsel to the D.C. Council, and Darrin P. Sobin, the District’s director of government ethics, confirmed they spoke to Orange about his new role and said they would address possible conflicts on a case-by-case basis.
Sobin said Orange has requested a formal opinion outlining what he can and can’t do.
On “The Kojo Nnamdi Show,” Orange said he would not lobby the council while serving on it. He said he will be focused on recruiting new members, noting that the chamber’s membership has fallen from 1,700 to 1,400 and that revenue has dropped. Orange also said he will focus on foreign embassies.
“No one has really gone after the embassies on Massachusetts Avenue — that’s where I’m going to be spending my time,” he said.
Barbara Lang, a former president of the chamber of commerce, said the position demanded 12-hour days and she puzzled over how Orange could hold both jobs. She also said it involves fundraising from companies that have business before the council, meeting with lawmakers and testifying at council hearings.
“There is an inherent conflict,” she said. “I don’t know how you lobby for the business community and turn around and be on the body that is making decisions.”
Carl L. Hairston, who heads the chamber’s board of directors, said Orange was selected in part because of his government connections but that the chamber will use an outside lobbyist to handle most of its city matters this fall.
Orange is the sponsor of one of the bills opposed by the chamber: the “Fair Scheduling Act” to stop the practice among major retail and restaurant employers to require workers to be available for shifts at a moment’s notice, sometimes sending them home without pay if business is slow.
Orange sought a vote on the bill on July 12, the same day he met privately with chamber executives about the job. The proposal was tabled, and Mendelson has since said that was his decision, not Orange’s.
Labor advocates interviewed said they do not think Orange was trying to sabotage the legislation but are unsure what his new job means for the bill’s prospects.
“He has given no indication that’s he’s going to back down, and every indication he’s going to keep moving it forward,” Mike Wilson, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which supports the bill.
But others were skeptical how Orange could back legislation while leading an organization that strongly opposes it.
“There’s a reason we don’t let baseball players umpire the game,” said Delvone Michael, who leads D.C. Working Families. “There’s absolutely no way Vincent Orange can champion labor-friendly legislation and also champion the chamber of commerce at the same time. It’s virtually impossible.”
Orange once pushed legislation that would block D.C. lawmakers from holding outside jobs.
But on Wednesday, he said he is now being unfairly singled out for outside employment. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) is a lawyer at a firm that lobbies the council, and Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) is a law professor at George Washington University.
“What I don’t understand is this double standard,” Orange said.