JUST HOW FAR the District has to go in changing its culture of government behavior was underscored by telling moments in last week’s hearing on proposed ethics reform.
The first, at the start of Wednesday’s D.C. Council hearing, came courtesy of the city’s refreshingly no-nonsense attorney general, Irvin B. Nathan. Generally supportive of the comprehensive approach to ethics drafted by council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Mr. Nathan delivered a bracing reminder about responsibility and leadership. “Not only do elected officials and other high-level appointed officers of the government have to comport themselves in an exemplary fashion, but they cannot appear to tolerate questionable conduct by their peers.” Yet, he observed “there has been little or no condemnation by elected officials of apparent violations by others.”
He probably had in mind the largely mute response to the agreement by council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D) to repay the city $300,000 in taxpayer dollars that an investigation by the attorney general concluded was misappropriated for the Ward 5 representative’s personal and political use. Only three council members – David Catania (I-At Large), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) — had the guts to call for his resignation. And, despite his campaign platform of integrity in government, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has been noticeably silent. Friday’s spectacle of federal agents searching Mr. Thomas’s house prompted a boilerplate response from the mayor about justice running its course while a clearly panicked council hastily called a meeting but quickly adjourned with the possibility of reconvening Monday.
Another telling moment, far less inspirational, was the lame defense of constituent service accounts. You would think that the analysis by the advocacy group D.C. for Democracy showing a paltry amount going to genuine needs such as rental and utility assistance or funeral costs would shame council members into silence. But no, there were Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) unpersuasively defending these ill-disguised slush funds as important to the community. It was a powerful demonstration of the importance elected officials place on the ability to raise money and how desperately they will fight efforts to curtail it.
The coda to the need for meaningful change was the presence of Mr. Thomas. He arrived too late to hear Mr. Nathan’s prepared remarks, had the sense not to ask Mr. Nathan any questions but couldn’t resist offering up his opinion that the bill would “go a long way” toward improving city ethics laws. No one should know better than he.