- The Washington Times - Monday, December 5, 2011

A D.C. Council committee got behind ethics reforms Monday, just hours before the full body failed to reach a consensus on the political ramifications of a federal raid on the Northeast home of colleague Harry Thomas Jr. as part of an ongoing corruption probe.

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown indicated he will speak with Mr. Thomas about the council’s closed-door discussion, which did not generate a decision on whether the beleaguered member should stay, be asked to step aside or be removed from his committee assignments.

Certain members privately said their hourlong meeting produced a range of opinions on what should happen after Friday’s raid, in which agents from the FBI and IRS seized a Chevy Tahoe, a motorcycle and other items from Mr. Thomas‘ home amid accusations he diverted $300,000 in public funds earmarked for youth baseball programs.

Members floated the idea that Mr. Thomas should take a leave of absence with pay, while others said the justice system should be allowed to do its work without action by the council, according to a pair of members.

All of the members, except Mr. Thomas, attended the meeting.

“I’ve been on the record for a long time about what should happen,” council member David A. Catania, at-large independent and one of three members who called on Mr. Thomas to resign after he agreed to pay $300,000 to settle a lawsuit brought against him by D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan.

“This is no longer a civil action,” Mr. Catania said.

The federal probes faced by Mr. Thomas and other elected officials in the District prompted the sweeping ethics reforms approved Monday by the Committee on Government Operations, despite concerns that late changes to the bill warranted a delay that would extend into the new year.

Committee Chairwoman Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, said it was important not to hold up legislation intended to stop perceived ethical lapses at city hall.

“Ultimately the goal is to restore the public’s trust in its government,” she said.

The latest version of Ms. Bowser’s bill would loosen the requirements needed to recall an elected official who violates the city’s code of conduct. Under the bill, an official could be recalled anytime for a violation that “substantially threatens the public’s trust.”

It also would reduce the number of public signatures required to begin recall proceedings.

Additionally, Ms. Bowser’s bill would immediately remove from office any elected official convicted of a felony. As it stands, the official must be incarcerated to be disqualified from office.

Those reforms require changes to the D.C. Charter, therefore must be approved by city voters.

Council members Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, and Michael A. Brown, at-large independent, said last-minute edits to the bill — an additional 50 pages — were released Friday night and required further scrutiny by the committee. Yet their pleas for a delay were rebuffed by Ms. Bowser and a visit to the dais by Kwame Brown.

The council chairman has pledged to pass ethics reform before the winter holiday recess, noting Monday he will schedule an additional legislative session if needed.

The bill also establishes a Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, a three-member panel appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council. Ms. Bowser said Monday she decided to extend board members’ terms to six years and reserve one seat for a minority party member.

Among other reforms, the bill reduces the amount of money an elected official can raise for a constituent services fund — private donations and leftover campaign money intended to meet residents’ urgent needs — from $80,000 to $40,000 and puts limits on how it can be used, including a prohibition on acquiring sports tickets.

Mr. Catania, a committee member, suggested that members approve the bill, at least procedurally, to begin debate before the full council at its legislative session Tuesday.

Mr. Orange offered the dissenting vote in a 4-1 approval of the bill, with the council chairman voting in his ex-officio capacity.

Mr. Thomas, a member of the committee, was absent from the proceedings.

None of the committee members made explicit reference to his situation from the dais, and Ms. Bowser said she did not direct Mr. Thomas to stay away.

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