The furor over District Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) taking leadership of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce while still in office has exposed rifts in the legislative body that has been trying to restore its reputation after years of scandal.
Nearly half of the 13-member body condemned the dual role as an flagrant conflict of interest, particularly the crop of younger, progressive lawmakers elected in 2014. And Orange’s attempt to quell the criticism on Wednesday by offering to cede his chairmanship of the committee regulating businesses didn’t settle the matter.
“I’m glad he’s realizing you can’t chair the committee that oversees your employer,” said council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). “At the same time, it will not remove all conflicts, so the council will be faced with trying to work the next couple of months to resolve a lot of conflicts.”
When the council returns from summer recess in September, Orange will still be the sponsor of bills affecting businesses and have a vote on them until his term expires in January. Ethics officials are writing an opinion for him, laying out boundaries for what he can and can’t do.
Orange’s harshest critic, council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), believes his new job at the Chamber of Commerce is so laden with conflicts that he should probably resign his seat.
“His ethical tone-deafness is the reason why he was voted out of office,” said Cheh, who backed Orange’s successful challenger in the June Democratic primary, Robert White. “This all should have been thought through before he put the council in this position of trying to work through this major conflict that he’s created.”
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who has previously defended Orange’s second job as legal, has become increasingly exasperated with the controversy swirling around the legislative body. He hasn’t called on Orange to resign, but said it wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
“It’s pretty clear that resigning would get rid of this mess, and it is a mess,” Mendelson said Thursday on the WJLA-TV News Talk show. “It becomes a much cleaner situation, an easier situation for everybody.”
It’s legal for Orange to hold a second job. But some council members say the aftermath of recent D.C. scandals means they must be beyond reproach.
In 2012, council chairman Kwame Brown and Ward 5 council member Harry Thomas resigned their seats after facing federal charges. The next year, former council member Michael Brown pleaded guilty to federal charges for taking bribes from undercover agents, later saying he was caught up in a “culture of corruption.”
“We are still rebuilding the public trust that we are an honest, ethical group of elected representatives, and I’m concerned a cloud of suspicion will remain over every vote council member Orange casts or any public statement he makes on legislation because there will be a question of who he’s speaking for and what are his motives,” said council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large).
Orange has retorted that he’s not the first member of council to take a second job — including Cheh, a law professor at George Washington University Law School. Ironically, he tried to make secondary employment illegal in 2012 — and says he has no problem taking his job since his push failed.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) has also drawn scrutiny for working for the government and regulatory affairs division of a law firm that has employees lobbying the D.C. Council.
On a Tuesday appearance on WAMU’s “The Kojo Nnamdi Show,” Evans said the most effective Council members have had outside jobs and that it was up to Orange to figure out how to respond to balance his roles. He did not respond to repeated requests for comment about his second job throughout the week.
Orange’s plan to avoid the appearance of impropriety as head of the committee on business, regulatory and consumer affairs is to dissolve the panel and hand over its bills and responsibilities to the full council headed up by Mendelson.
Mendelson wouldn’t commit to Orange’s idea, but applauded it as a way to address conflict of interest complaints.
But council member David Grosso (I-At Large), and other lawmakers, questioned this approach.
It essentially combines two committees’ workloads for complex legislation, including reform of the long-maligned Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and an ambitious paid family- and sick-leave program, with just months remaining to pass bills.
“What would effectively happen is nothing,” said Grosso. “And now the chamber is in a better position because they hired someone who effectively blocked any sort of action.”
Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), also chairwoman of the D.C. Democratic Party, had also called on Orange to step down from his committee chairmanship, questioning how he could pursue the agenda of business and regulatory reform and the chamber’s agenda simultaneously.
“We are elected by the residents, and the residents expect us to be concerned about the services and policies as it relates to the running of government on behalf of citizens,” said Bonds.
She and council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who also called on Orange to step down from his committee chairmanship, did not respond to messages on Wednesday afternoon about whether Orange’s proposal to dissolve his committee went far enough.
Council members LaRuby May (Ward 8) and Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), who were also voted out of office in the June Democratic primary, did not return requests for comments.
Council members Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) and Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) declined to comment.