Nearly three years ago, Tommy Wells left the D.C. Council dais and lambasted the ethics reform bill his colleagues had just passed on a 12-to-1 vote.
In a city with three elected officials under federal investigation at the time, Wells (D-Ward 6) called the bill’s lack of teeth “embarrassing” — a point of view he maintained through an unsuccessful mayoral run this year.
Now Wells has a different view of the legislation, which was shepherded through the council by Muriel E. Bowser (D-Ward 4) — a lawmaker who previously had been known more for constituent services and her ties to former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) than her ability to push through meaty bills.
“To get the council to agree that there’s an outside authority that could police individuals was a huge feat,” Wells said recently. “It was not a toothless bill.”
That change of heart partly reflects a shifting political landscape: After trying to outflank Bowser in the mayoral primary, Wells has now endorsed her mayoral bid in the Nov. 4 election. But it is also an indication of how Bowser’s much-criticized ethics package looks considerably better in hindsight.
Three years after Bowser held her first hearing on the issue — and more than two years after the ethics board that her bill created started its work — observers say they have seen a marked improvement in the city government’s handling of ethics matters, even if there is more room for improvement.
“It’s basically put D.C. from having no effective program to having one of the better ones,” said Robert Wechsler, an expert on municipal ethics who was hired by the D.C. Council in 2009 to study its code of conduct. “That’s a big advance.”
The D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability has taken serious action against three sitting council members, finding that Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) acted improperly in his dealings with a developer who was seeking a city contract; admonishing Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) for seeming to interfere with Health Department officials on a campaign contributor’s behalf; and fining Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) for accepting illicit gifts from contractors.
Those actions — as well as its recent prosecution of the city’s chief administrative law judge for code-of-conduct violations and its lower-profile but important role as a central source for ethics advice — have helped burnish the board’s reputation. And it has added some heft to Bowser’s boasts on the campaign trail in which she has repeatedly highlighted the ethics bill in her campaign literature and stump speeches.
Reformers continue to say that Bowser’s ethics bill missed opportunities to more thoroughly reform a pay-to-play culture that has continued to embarrass the council and the city. The bill made no attempts to reform campaign finance or procurement laws. Provisions that would have restricted the political activities of lobbyists and contractors, for instance, were not ultimately included in Bowser’s bill.
“It was labeled a comprehensive ethics reform, but I never thought that was a fair title for it,” said Jerry Clark, a leader of D.C. for Democracy, a liberal advocacy group that pushed for more thorough reforms.
“I appreciate what she did, but I still think we have significant problems with conflicts of interest, and we still haven’t bitten the bullet on pay-to-play,” he said.
It would be two more years — after Bowser had relinquished direct responsibility for ethics matters — before the council would take further action on campaign finance. That, Bowser said, was by design. “I always saw these things in buckets,” she said. “Dealing with a Board of Ethics and Government Accountability is comprehensive and complicated in many ways. Dealing with campaign finance is, in my view, a whole other bucket. . . . And, finally, contracting and procurement — you can’t just jumble all those things in one bill.”
Getting something passed in the closing months of 2011 was a difficult task made necessary by a spate of investigations and allegations that unsettled not only the John A. Wilson Building but also the public at large.
The mayoral campaign of Vincent C. Gray (D) was being scrutinized by federal officials over alleged illicit cash payoffs to a fellow candidate. One council member, Harry Thomas Jr., had settled a civil lawsuit in which he’d been accused of absconding with hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, and the council’s new chairman, Kwame R. Brown, was facing a federal probe into his own campaign.
The morass prompted members to introduce a dozen ethics-related bills, including a ban on outside employment, prohibitions on constituent service funds and enhanced lobbying disclosures to term limits.
It was left to Bowser, as chairman of the council’s Government Operations Committee, to fashion the pieces into a bill that could garner support from her 12 colleagues without being so anodyne as to open herself — and the rest of the council — to charges of fecklessness.
Several council members saw no need to do much of anything, noting that the criminal investigations involving Gray, Thomas and Brown showed that the system worked.
“In my view, it just wasn’t necessary to do anything,” said Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). “The bill addressed none of the problems that the council, the government or the mayor were having. It become an opportunity for those in the chattering class, so to speak, to get laws passed that they had been trying to get for years.”
His advice to Bowser: “Don’t go overboard,” he said. “You don’t have to accommodate these groups because they’re screaming and yelling.”
On the other side were Wells and activists who felt that the rash of investigations offered the best chance to pass serious reforms to campaign finance laws and other measures. In the end, Bowser’s bill focused mainly on establishing the new ethics board and giving it the tools and resources to be an effective watchdog.
“All of the officials who were accused of wrongdoing had already broken the law,” Bowser said. “But what was wrong with the environment that let these things happen? . . . I thought it was important that we had a single entity — a new sheriff, if you will — that would be responsible for enforcing our code of conduct. And it’s worked.”
On the campaign trail, Bowser has taken occasional hits on ethics matters — particularly from Carol Schwartz (I), who has criticized her for voting with her colleagues to delay certain campaign finance reforms until after the current election. In response, Bowser said it would be imprudent to have changed the rules mid-election.
Her leading rival, D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), has not made a major issue of the ethics legislation during his campaign, but he has said the bill does not outweigh his long record of major legislation. On the dais before the final vote on Bowser’s 2011 bill, Catania praised her for a “great balancing act,” saying that “this bill is going to be a measurable improvement over where we are.”
Those inside and outside the D.C. government credit the board’s chairman, former attorney general Robert J. Spagnoletti, and its executive director, Darrin P. Sobin, for their professionalism and aggressiveness. They have had their critics: Wechsler, for instance, called the board’s action against Graham “seriously irresponsible” for detailing potential ethics violations that it lacked the jurisdiction to enforce.
Spagnoletti said that having an ethics cop on the beat with clear authority and resources, including subpoena power and an investigative staff, has made a difference — even if further reforms, such as a look at city contracting, are necessary.
“We have a long way to go in establishing ourselves as a watchdog and an enforcer, but we’re beginning to start that process,” he said. “People are starting to respect us and what we do.”
That growing level of respect has Bowser’s colleagues granting her grudging respect years after the battle was fought.
“Something had to be done, and the jury’s still out on whether it was the right thing to do,” said Evans, who also ran against Bowser in the primary and is now endorsing her. “Muriel, to her credit, was able to craft something that did no harm.”
Commented Wells: “She got the bill through without a whole lot of public acrimony, and she did it fairly smoothly. The only problem she really had was me.”