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The Washington, DC Council's ethics proposal fails to address pressing issues

by PolicyFellow

This post was written by Policy Fellow Matt Rumsey and cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington. In addition to working as a Fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, Rumsey is a contributor to Greater Greater Washington, where he writes on government reform and local political issues. The views in this piece are his own. 

The Washington, DC city government and council have dealt with a variety of ethics scandals this year. In response, various council members introduced 10 ethics related bills, proposing numerous reforms. The Council Committee on Government Operations has jurisdiction over ethics, financial disclosure, and campaign finance issues. On Friday, they released a draft version of a comprehensive ethics reform bill. 

Councilmember Muriel Bowser released a draft ethics bill Friday. The bill takes some steps to follow best practices in municipal ethics, but is overly reactive to recent scandals, contains significant loopholes, has relatively weak enforcement and punitive powers, and ignores or passes the buck on some much needed reforms.

Bowser chairs the Council's Committee on Government Operations, and therefore has the responsibility for creating a bill out of the many individual ethics proposals that various councilmembers put forth.

Her bill establishes a single body, the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, with the authority to make rules and regulations, issue subpoenas, impose fines, and censure public officials. The bill also codifies new financial disclosure requirements and attempts to regulate transition, inaugural, legal defense, and constituent service funds.

Unfortunately, the powers of the board are limited and politicized, the other provisions of the bill have obvious loopholes, and several important reforms are not fully addressed.

The bill addresses a number of hot-button ethics issues including lobbying, financial disclosure, and transition, inaugural, legal defense, and constituent service funds.

The bill takes positive steps to strengthen regulation of inaugural and transition committees. It requires that these committees report their finances in the same way that principal campaign committees do, and it sets limits on the amount that individuals can contribute. The bill also has fairly strong financial disclosure provisions that would make potential conflicts of interest easier to identify.

Unfortunately, the bill's efforts related to lobbying reform and constituent service funds are weak and riddled with loopholes.

The bill prohibits lobbyists, or those working on their behalf, from offering legal or professional services to public officials or staff at reduced or no cost. There are two serious problems with this provision.

First, it does not prohibit public officials from receiving legal or professional services at little or no cost from someone who is not a registered lobbyist. Public officials should be required to pay market value for any services that they receive.

Second, it allows registered lobbyists to provide legal and professional services to public officials, provided they are adequately compensated. Any circumstance involving a public official hiring and compensating a registered lobbyist to advise them on issues in any way related to council business is a clear conflict of interest and should be prohibited.

Additionally, the bill does nothing to stop lobbyists or businesses from donating to political campaigns, transition and inauguration committees, or constituent service funds.

The bill's attempts to reform constituent service funds are reactionary, weak, and full of loopholes. While prohibiting CSF money from being used to purchase "year-long or season admissions to theatrical, sporting, or cultural events," the bill doesn't prohibit CSF's from buying tickets in any other format.

Of more concern, the financial disclosure requirements do not appear to meet the standards set in other sections of the bill. Unlike transition and inaugural committees, which have to report the name, address, and place of business of their donors, constituent service funds are only required to report "contributions and expenditures ... quarterly". The bill should include specific language requiring CSFs to disclose detailed information about donors.

The bill chooses not to lead on some issues that have been well publicized recently. Instead of making specific proposals on corporate bundling of campaign contributions and nepotism and cronyism in city government, the bill leaves it up to the board to decide policy on these important issues.

That board, as proposed, has problems of its own. Members of the board would be nominated by the mayor and approved by the council. This leaves little room for public input on nominees. District citizens will be relying on the city's most political figures to fill what is intended to be a non-political body. The bill should be amended to allow for some form of public input on nominees to the board.

Additionally, there is no guarantee of minority party, or independent, representation on the board. This may have been intentional and intended to keep the appearance of politics out of the process. But, in a city so dominated by the Democratic party, minority representation is necessary.

The board is given the power to fine and even censure public officials for violations. However, it does not have the power to strip council members, or other elected officials, of committee assignments or votes. Instead, all that the board can do is recommend that the council "consider suspending or removing a Council member's committee chairmanship ... membership ... or the member's vote." The council has no obligation to act on such a recommendation. Additionally, the bill does not specify procedures for censure and removal of ANC commissioners or members of the School Board.

The ethics board should be given the power to truly sanction elected officials, including ANC commissioners and School Board members, for violating ethics and disclosure rules. Real accountability will not be possible as long as this power remains in the hands of political bodies.

The proposal as drafted is not a complete failure, but it will require significant changes to become an ethics bill that the District deserves.

The Government Operations committee will be holding a roundtable on November 30 to discuss the bill. You can register to testify at the roundtable by signing up online, or contacting Judah Gluckman, the committee's legislative counsel, at 202-724-8025 or You can also submit a written statement to the Committee on Government Operations, Council of the District of Columbia, Suite 113 of the John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20004 no later than November 30, 2011.