D.C. Council passes ethics reform bill

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The D.C. Council passed sweeping ethics legislation on Tuesday for the first time in decades in an attempt to restore faith in City Hall after a series of stumbles that ranged from questionable personnel decisions to more serious actions that prompted ongoing criminal probes.

The council’s approval of the bill on a 12-1 vote fulfills a promise by Chairman Kwame R. Brown to pass an ethics-reform bill by the end of the year, setting the tone for 2012 even as the U.S. attorney’s office continues to look into reports of misdeeds by elected officials or their campaign teams.

“We did not duck any of the tough issues,” council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, said of the tortuous process that resulted in the final vote.

Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, offered the lone dissenting vote on the bill, saying it does not shed enough light on certain campaign finance practices.

Among reforms hammered out Tuesday, the council established a procedure to censure or expel one of its members and decided it may use constituent services funds to pay for sports tickets.

“Clearly, everyone did not get everything they wanted, but this is a step in the right direction,” Mr. Brown said.

Council member Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, distilled the bill from 12 measures put before her as chairwoman of the Committee on Government Operations, after a steady stream of allegations and perceived lapses in judgment by multiple public officials.

Among them, the home of council member Harry Thomas Jr. was raided by federal investigators this month in connection with charges he bilked $300,000 of taxpayer funds earmarked for youth baseball programs. The U.S. attorney’s office is investigating whether financial irregularities on the part of Mr. Brown’s 2008 re-election committee amount to criminal conduct. A grand jury reportedly is investigating charges that Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s campaign team paid a minor candidate to bash incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

Ms. Bowser’s legislation establishes new financial-disclosure rules and sets up a three-member board of ethics to police and sanction officials who violate the city government’s code of conduct and the public’s trust, among other reforms.

The amendment process to fine-tune the bill on Tuesday took several hours and included contentious exchanges among members about the best way to police themselves.

Marion Barry said reporters were hyping the charges.

“The media is driving the train,” the Ward 8 Democrat said. “Nobody gave them that power.”

The council agreed that to expel a member, five members of the council would have to initiate an investigation by the ethics board.

A five-member, ad hoc committee of the council would recommend whether to reprimand, censure or expel a member, and the final action would need 11 votes from the full council. That aspect of the legislation will require approval by D.C. voters before it becomes law.

Voters also will be asked to weigh in on a provision that expels a member upon a felony conviction, rather than requiring incarceration before expulsion.

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