HERE IS the message that the $5,100 fine levied against D.C. Council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) sends to candidates running for public office in the city: Don’t worry about accurately accounting for who contributes to your campaign or how you spend the money. Feel free to thumb your nose at deadlines for providing information. Know that skirting the rules may actually help you get elected. If there is a fine, however paltry, it won’t have to come out of your pocket but can be paid — you guessed it — with campaign funds.
Two years after the start of an audit into Mr. Todd’s 2015 campaign to fill the council seat made vacant when Muriel E. Bowser (D) was elected mayor, the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance last week found his election committee violated campaign-finance law. Finding the committee failed to meet deadlines in properly accounting for more than than $100,000 in contributions, the office blamed “irresponsible record keeping” and fined the committee $5,100. The fine, as The Post’s Aaron C. Davis detailed, was calculated in a way most lenient to Mr. Todd’s campaign. But then that seems to be in keeping with the office’s gingerly handling of this case. Significant deficiencies in the Todd campaign’s filings were identified more than a year ago but were not made public at the time. Deadlines came and went, and Mr. Todd was able to run in and win a contested election in 2016 for a full term.
A spokesman for Mr. Todd’s campaign initially said the fine would be appealed. But Mr. Todd later told us no, there would be no appeal, and the fine would be paid. Little wonder that Mr. Todd, who insists that everything has now been put in order, hopes to put the matter to rest. But lingering issues (such as the mystery surrounding the disappearance from the campaign-finance office of a file containing original documents and bank account information related to the case) and questions raised in media accounts about Mr. Todd’s 2016 campaign have resulted in calls for D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) to look into the matter. Outside review would certainly be helpful and should be welcomed by Mr. Todd, who has maintained that any problems with his campaign were the result of sloppiness and innocent errors, not wrongdoing.
Whatever Mr. Racine decides, it is clear that action is also needed by the D.C. Council to overhaul the city’s campaign-finance laws and how they are enforced. This sadly is not the first time that a flagrant violation of the rules has been met with little more than a slap on the wrist. And it is striking that the irregularities resulting in a $13,000 fine, announced Tuesday, against Ms. Bowser’s campaign were discovered not by the campaign office but by the nonprofit Public Citizen. The question is whether council members, who profess to want muscular and proactive investigation and enforcement of campaign misconduct, will take the needed steps for reform. Or will they, as they have in the past, opt for a status quo that works to the benefit of those running for — or to hold on to — office?