- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 29, 2005

The D.C. government since 2002 has accepted more than $6 million in donations of cash and in-kind services, which have paid for a wide range of items, including legal advice and overseas travel for city officials.

Government watchdogs say accepting private donations can be beneficial for offsetting the use of tax dollars, but warn of pitfalls in mixing private money with official city business.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams has defended the practice, saying that city officials always disclose who pays for their travel when funding comes from outside sources.

Travel-related donations have totaled about $70,000 since 2002, city records show.

Much of the millions of dollars in outside donations the city reported has paid for initiatives such as the renovation of a senior center and installation of computers in a high school.

But some donations also have paid for airfare and receptions for city officials on trips, including more than $50,000 donated for a trade mission to China last fall that involved Mr. Williams and more than one-third of the D.C. Council.

“It’s a question of access,” said Bernard Ross, a professor of government at American University. “I would have a difficult time arranging a meeting with city officials, but I’d have an easier time if I helped defray some of their travel costs.”

City officials say donors receive no special treatment and that all outside gifts to D.C. government are reviewed, approved and made public each quarter by the D.C. Office of Partnerships and Grants Development. In addition, officials say the mayor’s office disclosed donations for the trade mission.

“It’s all done through official agreements [and] it’s all vetted,” Mr. Williams said in an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times earlier this month. “It’s all publicly documented and reported.”

He said he would like to see more donations from private sources so that city taxpayers do not have to pay for such trips. “I’m saying that’s the preferable way of doing it,” he said.

Mr. Williams said most travel donations come from what he called “standing organizations,” such as the National League of Cities, which have no direct interest in winning government contracts. Mr. Williams is president of the National League of Cities.

However, records show examples in which donations have come from businesses such as D.C.-based Harmon, Wilmot & Brown LLP, which gave $25,000 toward Mr. Williams’ trade mission to China. David Wilmot, a principal in the firm, is a registered lobbyist in the District.

Lockheed Martin Corp., which previously held the city’s red-light and speed-camera contract, and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, one of the city’s most prominent law firms, also contributed money for city officials’ travel, records show.

Concerning private donations, Mr. Williams said, city officials must “strike a balance” and avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Michele Swers, assistant professor of American government at Georgetown University, said private funds for public travel present a problem if the donors are “buying time for their donations.”

“Clearly, having private groups fund travel is a welcome thing from a taxpayer’s perspective in that they’re shelling out less for these kinds of trips,” said Peter Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union. “On the other hand, given the fact that some firms funding the trips might indeed have an interest in other taxpayer-funded ventures, it can certainly present issues.”

Lafayette Barnes, director of the D.C. Office of Partnerships and Grants Development, said recently that his office consults the D.C. Office of the Attorney General when deciding whether to accept a donation to ensure “there is no quid pro quo.” He said donations are posted quarterly on the office’s Web site, www.opgd.dc.gov.

Mr. Williams has said his trips boost investment in the city, attract conventions and draw attention to the District’s lack of voting rights in Congress. Mr. Williams’ spokesman, Vincent Morris, said no one has questioned the donations because city officials have disclosed them.

Unlike the District, cities such as Richmond and Baltimore have no specific government agencies tasked with reviewing outside donations.

Bill Farrar, a spokesman for Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, said outside donations are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, but the city does not accept money from business interests to underwrite the travel of its city officials.

“I’m not aware that there’s ever been a policy. We just generally don’t accept private funds for travel,” Mr. Farrar said.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, said “the mayor has taken trips that have been paid by outside groups,” but she said there is no city office that solicits or reviews such donations.

Miss Guillory said the Mayor’s Office of Community Investment raises funds for general civic-related initiatives, such as school repairs. “We don’t take those funds and mingle them with anything for travel,” she said.

Among the highest nontravel-related donations are $725,000 in services and material from the District of Columbia Building Industry Association toward renovating the Benning Stoddart Recreation Center in Southeast, and $400,000 in legal services from the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice Inc. toward challenging the ban on the city’s ability to impose a commuter tax.

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