Watching some legislators preen and strut in the D.C. Council chamber, it’s apparent that they are oblivious to their loss of moral authority. They simply don’t realize how many residents don’t pay much heed when they speak. Their words are not taken to heart because of how some members have conducted themselves — in ways that do not merit trust or respect.
Next, there’s the scandalous handling of the D.C. lottery contract and the surreptitious way iGaming legislation was added to a city spending bill.
Then there are the cases, reported by The Post, of council members steering public funds to their pet organizations despite a clear ban on earmarking.
Nor should we forget the city’s “pay to play” system, fueled by contributions to elected officials’ political campaigns and constituent services funds from monied special interest groups.
District residents are flooded with reasons to conclude that many leaders have forfeited their moral authority.
But to judge just how low some council members are willing to stoop, measure how they respond, if at all, to the recommendations in the report by D.C. Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby on the city chief financial officer’s lottery contract award.
The inspector general’s recommendations are aimed at the heart of the practices that make the District such a scuzzy place to do business.
Ask yourselves: Why in the world does the 13-member D.C. Council take it upon itself to approve every city contract in excess of $1 million?
As one reader wrote in response to my column last week, “The problem starts with an asinine provision in the law that requires D.C. Council approval for contracts, which leads to a shakedown of potential awardees. That provision should be removed from the law. The council has no legitimate business on whether A or B company gets a contract. Its sole interest should be in making sure the process is proper.”
The inspector general’s report said as much but in a more oblique way. Willoughby recommended that the council define “the purpose for its contract review and approval process and develop . . . specific written procedures governing such review.” His point is sound. As things stand, council members can intervene and disapprove of a project for any reason they want.
Willoughby tactfully urged lawmakers to consider “whether such reviews and/or approvals are better conducted by it exercising [their] legislative powers through the promulgation of law and policy, rather than nullifying the results of the competitive bid process.”
Which is a nice way of saying they should butt out of the business of awarding contracts.
At issue: Will council members restrain themselves from sticking their hands into the honey pot up to the elbows?
Willoughby, always diplomatic, addressed another aspect of the problem with a circuitous recommendation. “With the current emphasis on ethics with respect to council members,” he wrote, “the Council and [Board of Elections and Ethics] should assess or, at a minimum, may want to consider, whether existing codes of ethics for the Council and it [sic] employees provide adequate guidance to councilmembers, including a delineation of prohibited conduct, when performing duties concerning review and approval of contracts. . . or whether a separate or revised code of ethics is needed.”
Allow me to interpret: The inspector general reported receiving information that a council member, publicly identified as Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), made statements “suggesting that he would not vote for the [awarded lottery contract] because of a dislike for or ill feelings toward certain joint venture participants.” E-mails between Graham and representatives of the contract winner, which were unearthed by The Post’s editorial page, suggest — at least to my non-lawyer ears — like the council member may have been seeking a quid pro quo for his support of the contract. Graham has denied any impropriety.
Of course, the council has the option of doing nothing in response to the inspector general’s recommendations. There are no legal consequences for ignoring Willoughby. They can continue fly-specking each $1 million-plus contract with a view toward nullifying the competitive bidding process if, for whatever reason, they don’t like the outcome. Members are at liberty to call in candidates for contracts for meetings ahead of deliberations to exact whatever they can in exchange for a yes vote.
Will they, without prodding by D.C. voters, change their behavior?
Answer this: Can a mule whistle?