The ethically pious will gather Wednesday in the John A. Wilson Building, where a D.C. Council committee is holding a second hearing on ethics legislation meant to demonstrate that elected officials are serious about cleaning up the mess they’ve gotten themselves into in the past nine months.
But remember, it isn’t just the laws that need an upgrade. So do elected officials — along with the people they hire — and the voters who elect them.
To recap: The allegations of campaign shenanigans by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), not to mention the graft allegations leveled against Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) and other sundry misdoings, have prompted something of a D.C. Council ethics orgy in recent months, with six council members introducing nearly a dozen reform bills. It has fallen to Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), chairman of the Government Operations Committee, to merge the bills into something workable and effective.
Bowser’s draft bill makes significant changes to the District’s accountability regime. It takes the existing Board of Elections and Ethics, subtracts the ethics portion and hands it to a new Board of Ethics and Government Accountability focused solely on policing the city government. The bill also puts new, explicit curbs on constituent service funds spending; establishes strict new disclosure requirements for city officials; and for the first time regulates transition, inauguration and legal defense fundraising.
Because the bill does not include some of the more radical reforms — establishing term limits or banning political contributions from lobbyists or city contractors — a few have written off the bill as a whitewash. Current political candidates are leading the charge, with several challengers to sitting council members suggesting that constituent service funds ought to be eliminated outright. Civic activists Dorothy Brizill and Gary Imhoff have scoffed at the new ethics board in their online newsletter, calling the bill a “near-total disappointment” that “would essentially rearrange the deck chairs.”
Funny, the new board, with broad investigatory powers, is — on paper — a significant step toward creating the kind of ethics sheriff the city government has lacked. And the new disclosure requirements are — on paper — long overdue. And Brizill, Imhoff and the rest are correct to say that — on paper — more could be done.
I say “on paper” because no matter how many ethics laws the council might pass, it’s up to elected officials and the people they hire to animate the aspirations of those laws. And if they don’t do it, it’s up to voters to hold them accountable.
The discussion Wednesday and in the coming weeks will surround what is or isn’t in the bill the council is likely to pass in the next month. But more discussion should probably be devoted to how the District can make its public officials more accountable. And Bowser’s bill does give citizens better tools for holding officials accountable.
Public officials — meaning elected officials and a fairly vast swath of the executive branch — would have to file much tougher yearly financial disclosures under the Bowser bill.
They would have to disclose all sources of outside income for the first time, not just those that do business with the city, as well as any clients that might have some connection with city business. There would be tougher disclosure rules for personal debts, real estate holdings and more. They would have to pledge to have paid their taxes and reported “known illegal activity,” giving the ethics board grounds for action should it find a violation.
Bowser’s bill has also come under criticism for the makeup of the ethics board — three mayoral appointees, confirmed by the council.
“[T]here is a widespread and justified public suspicion that the problem is not one bad apple, but that the apple’s rottenness has spread throughout the barrel,” Imhoff wrote this week. “The politicians who will be appointing and confirming ethics board members are now so compromised that their appointees will inevitably be suspect and their independence questioned.”
That’s a statement of political cynicism that suggests the rot has extended into the populace. Some other cities have established independent ethics commissions that offer a different membership mix. Jacksonville, Fla., for instance, enacted a widely praised law earlier this year establishing an ethics commission consisting of members appointed by the mayor, council president, state’s attorney, county public defender, chief judge and sheriff. But in Florida, each of those officeholders is elected. In the District, relying on judges or prosecutors would mean relying on the wisdom and judgment of federal appointees — a false step for a city ready to demonstrate it can police itself.