D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown has ordered the legislature’s members and employees to file internal financial disclosures for the first time, raising sharp objections from his colleagues.
In a memo to council members circulated late Wednesday, Brown (D) said the new disclosures are intended “to avoid potential conflicts of interest and to ensure compliance with local and federal laws.” The reports will not be publicly available but will be used by council attorneys “to determine whether a subordinate has a financial conflict of interest” and to provide appropriate advice.
“We want to make sure we’re doing all we can do to ensure we’re maintaining the highest ethical standards,” Brown said in an interview Friday.
The new requirement follows a legal review by the council’s chief lawyer, V. David Zvenyach, that addressed a “lack of consistency in interpretation” of local and federal ethics laws as they apply to city legislators. It comes amid a broader effort on the council to address the city’s ethical strictures after a series of embarrassing controversies in city government.
Zvenyach concluded that the federal conflict of interest law applies to the council and all of its staff members, requiring them to avoid participating in matters that involve their spouses, children, business partners or potential future employers. The local conflict of interest law has a different scope, covering members and staff earning more than $72,100 a year.
D.C. personnel rules require confidential disclosures from employees who perform “purchasing functions, or functions in which meaningful decisions are made respecting private organizations.” Brown, in his memo, said he is requiring the disclosures for all employees to “err on the side of caution.”
Employees who are “unlikely to perform any functions that would potentially lead to a conflict of interest” are permitted to seek a waiver on a case-by-case basis. The disclosures, the memo says, will be kept in a “locked file cabinet,” available only to an employee’s supervisor.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who also serves as Brown’s chairman pro tempore, sent a letter to her colleagues Thursday, questioning the underlying legal analysis.
“On my reading of the law, we are not covered” by federal law, she wrote. “I believe that we should be cautious in allowing ourselves to be swept up in a much larger regulatory mechanism, which may be a good model for us, but over which we have no control.”
But Cheh did not explicitly oppose Brown’s plan for greater financial disclosures. “[I]f the Chairman or this body wants to direct that we engage in disclosure and protection against conflicts that the federal law envisions . . . I would support it,” she wrote. “But we have enough federal interference in the operation of our local government without actively seeking to increase it.”
Zvenyach, who served as Cheh’s chief of staff, said that there’s “not a shadow” of doubt that the federal conflict of interest law applies to staff members. Its application to members, he said, is less clear.
D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) also raised objections to Brown’s request, questioning whether he had the authority to order the additional disclosures.
“I don’t know what authority the chairman has to do that which only the full council can do,” he said.
Brown played down the objections, noting that neither Cheh nor Mendelson is specifically opposed to the disclosure measures. “The real idea is how to move forward in being open and transparent,” he said.