D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) led his colleagues Tuesday in passing an ethics reform package that they hope will end their annus horribilis — a bill to put a period on a sentence that includes such words as “FBI raid” and “fully loaded SUV” and “cash-stuffed envelope.”
It establishes a central authority for ethics enforcement, toughens financial disclosure laws, and, as amended Tuesday, would allow, for the first time, the council to expel a misbehaving member.
“We went farther than anyone anticipated,” Brown said afterward.
But council members are already facing questions of whether they could have gone further.
The legislation is sweeping but falls short of radical. Council members had a chance to overhaul the relationships among themselves, corporate donors, lobbyists and the business of the city. They did not, and there were signs — some subtle, some not — that the council was not interested in changing business as usual.
It started with the first amendment to the bill. Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who wrote the ethics bill, included a restriction banning members from using their privately raised constituent service money to buy season tickets for sports teams.
But Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) wanted to continue his long-standing practice of handing out Nationals and Wizards seats to constituents and community organizations. With little discussion, his colleagues agreed.
Later, a semantic debate ensued about whether those same constituent service funds, often filled by donations from the politically connected, should be renamed “council services funds,” as proposed by Phil Mendelson (D-At Large). That suggestion came after some recent analyses of the spending determined that most council members didn’t always use the money for their constituents’ welfare.
An Evans proposal that would have kept the constituent service fundraising limits at $80,000 failed (it was lowered to $40,000). But so did an earlier amendment to ban the funds entirely.
That came from Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the only member to show an interest in upsetting the underlying status quo — and a guy, cynics have noted, who sees a political future in removing himself from the council fray.
He saw two amendments that advocated new disclosures for corporate contributors go down. The only yea votes were his own. The debate ended with Wells casting the only vote against the ethics bill, with otherwise reform-minded colleagues pledging to address the additional issues in a separate bill.
“We had some suggestions about things that really didn’t address the behavior we have here,” Bowser said when asked about criticism of the bill this month on WTTG-TV (Channel 5). “There’s some people that want to eliminate the ability of corporations to give. None of those really impact the problems that we’re seeing currently or close the loopholes [to] prevent this type of behavior in the future.”
That comment highlights the difference between the Wilson Building zeitgeist and a chorus of outside critics.
The council put together a bill that toughens ethics standards and practices enough to deter some of the brazen actions that council members are accused of. Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) is alleged to have diverted taxpayer money for private use, and Brown is alleged to have not disclosed campaign contributions and expenditures.
They codified existing laws in one place, toughened some disclosure provisions and created a more effective enforcement mechanism.
But the bill’s toughest critics are looking to cast a wider net. They want to abolish practices that may not break any laws but that leave people shaking their heads — spending constituent service money on sports tickets, for instance, or accepting donations from related companies and lobbyists.
The non-accused members of the council do not see themselves as part of the problem. But their challengers are sensing weakness, and ethics stands to be the major issue of next year’s D.C. Council campaigns.
It’s no coincidence that many of those testifying about the bill this month — and arguing for tougher measures — were candidates. Mary Brooks Beatty (At Large), Sekou Biddle (At Large), Tom Brown (Ward 7), Peter Shapiro (At Large), Max Skolnik (Ward 4), among others, have indicated that ethics will be a major part of their platforms.
The incumbents, judging by their votes Tuesday, aren’t particularly worried. The system brought them to power, and they hope that the system will keep them there. They’ll find out if they are right April 3.