AN ETHICAL CLOUD hovers over six of the 13 members of the D.C. Council. A mayoral administration that campaigned on values of character and integrity is off to a bad start. Energy that should be focused on critical issues facing the District is instead spent on disgraces involving luxury cars, plum city jobs and the alleged looting of public funds. Reform is needed — but a proposal to change the city’s ethics rules is a misguided approach that would hardly improve the system.
Monday’s public hearing on the Comprehensive Ethics Reform Act of 2011 comes against the backdrop of serial misdeeds by city officials. This week saw the scathing accusation by the District’s attorney general that council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) used his office to divert hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars for personal and political benefit; the revelation that council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) failed to notify police when he was offered an envelope stuffed with cash; and troubling questions about the promotion by council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) of legislation that might benefit a firm that employed him.
Add to that Friday’s decision by D.C. campaign officials to proceed with a complaint against council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (he of fully loaded Navigator fame) for alleged irregularities involving his 2008 campaign; complaints (being investigated) that Ward 7 council member Yvette Alexander (D) misused her constituent service funds; the abuse of office by council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who gave a girlfriend a contract and directed city money to nonprofit groups he controlled; the disturbing hiring practices of Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s fledgling administration. A dismal picture begins to take shape.
Considering these circumstances, Mr. Brown and council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) deserve credit for taking up the cause of ethics reform. There are some useful provisions in their bill. New government employees would have to undergo ethics training and take a yearly refresher course. Disclosure requirements would be tightened, with public officials having to more fully report business relationships with lobbyists. Lobbyist registration forms would be more quickly posted for public review.
Nonetheless, the bill is seriously flawed. It not only would fail to bring clarity to the city’s confusing code of conduct but also would create unnecessary bureaucracy. An ethics advisory committee would be formed and a new office of government accountability would be tasked with investigations, although it would only be able to make recommendations to a vaguely described “appropriate authority.”
Instead of creating dubious layers of government where investigations can go to die, the council should strengthen the agencies — the office of campaign finance, the inspector general and the attorney general’s office — already in place. The office of attorney general, which already has an ethics officer, seems the appropriate place to vest more authority — particularly since it will become an elected office in 2014. It’s to the lasting shame of the council that, in a fit of pique with then-Attorney General Peter Nickles, it stripped the office of most of its subpoena powers. Another problem is the attorney general’s inability to bring criminal cases against those who commit offenses against the city.
Council members are right to treat this issue as an urgent matter, but they should not let their concern over the current controversies lead them to enact a bad bill. Better they slow down, diagnose the weaknesses, listen to the experts and come up with legislation that has a chance of working.