The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics said Wednesday that local laws governing the behavior of government officials “are not sufficient,” but D.C. Council members remain split over how to reform the system.
With D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) pledging that an ethics bills will pass this year, more than 30 people testified at a hearing Wednesday, offering suggestions for enacting more oversight over the city’s elected leaders.
Until now, the authority for policing local elected officials has largely rested with three-member Board of Elections and Ethics and its subsidiary, the Office of Campaign Finance.
But Kenneth McGhie, the board’s general counsel, told the council that the city’s ethics laws “are fragmented,” leading to “gaps in enforcement.”
“There is a growing sense among voters, as they have watched recent ethics investigations unfold, that the ethics laws of the District are not sufficient,” McGhie said. “That is because they are not.”
Over the past two years, nearly half of the 13 council members have faced questions about their use of public or campaign funds. For instance, the U.S. attorney’s office is investigating allegations against council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) that he diverted more than $300,000 from youth programs to pay for a luxury sport-utility vehicle and personal travel. Federal investigators are also looking into campaign expenditures by Brown.
Council members have introduced 10 ethics bills, including proposals to ban donations from corporations and lobbyists to political campaigns, reduce the amount that can be raised from constituent services funds, enact term limits, ban council members from holding outside jobs, and bolster disclosure requirements.
The council’s Committee on Government Operations, which held Wednesday’s hearing, is evaluating the proposals and is expected to merge them into one comprehensive bill next month.
At the hearing, former Ward 3 council member Kathy Patterson advocated the creation of a council ethics committee that would internally monitor and enforce members’ behavior, as she said the National Conference of State Legislatures first recommended after a study a decade ago.
“Only the council can restore public trust in the council,” Patterson testified.
Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), the chairwoman of the committee, indicated she prefers to establish a separate Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, which would function independently of the elections board.
“This board would have the power to enforce the District Personnel Manual against all employees, including, for the first time, elected officials,” Bowser said.
Others, including the leaders of the D.C. Republican Party and the liberal D.C. for Democracy group, spoke in favor of broad new ethics guidelines, including the elimination of constituent services funds and banning members from holding second jobs.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) called both suggestions “misguided.”
“I think my service on the council has been enhanced by [my] outside employment,” said Cheh, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University.