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D.C. Council passes ethics-reform bill

Thomas shows up, votes, doesn’t discuss investigation

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Four days after a federal raid on his Northeast home, D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. took part in the unanimous approval of a sweeping ethics bill that could see final passage before the end of the year.

Mr. Thomas entered the council chambers shortly after 11 a.m. — followed by a scrum of TV cameras — without indicating whether he will take a leave of absence in light of mounting pressure from accusations he diverted $300,000 in public funds intended for youth baseball programs.

Mr. Thomas remained silent during debate and told reporters he was unable to comment on the investigation.

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown said Tuesday he plans to meet with Mr. Thomas to discuss his situation.

Mr. Brown also directed the council to use the two weeks until its next meeting to iron out members' differences on the ethics bill before a final vote on the legislation, which is intended to restore public faith in city government amid federal probes of Mr. Thomas and other elected officials and the trickle of other perceived ethical lapses out of city hall.

Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, sidestepped the controversies, saying the ethics debate is "about not what we've done in the past, but what we're willing to do in the future."

The legislation was culled by council member Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, from a dozen proposed ethics-reform measures. Yet lengthy discussion and veiled barbs among members on Tuesday — six amendments to the bill were defeated or withdrawn — showed that ample debate remains on whether the council should be able to remove one its colleagues, if elected officials should hold outside employment and how constituent services funds should be regulated so they pay for residents' dire needs instead of catering expenses or sports tickets.

"I feel strongly about these citizen service funds," council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, said of the funds created from leftover campaign dollars and private donations. "They fill a role that is undeniable in government. They just do."

Mayor Vincent C. Gray urged the D.C. Council to wait until January to put its final stamp on the wide-ranging ethics bill to allow for an adequate review of late changes to the legislation.

Those changes include a lower threshold to begin recall efforts and the disqualification from office of the mayor or council members upon conviction for a felony, with or without imprisonment. Both proposals require a change to the D.C. charter and must go before voters.

The mayor's request in a letter to city lawmakers added a wrinkle to the debate over the expansive legislation, which creates a three-member Board of Ethics and includes a host of other reforms on financial disclosures, lobbying and recall procedures.

The council chairman has pledged to pass the bill before the end of the year and showed no signs of backing down on Tuesday.

"There are some things you agreed to work with members on between first and second readings," Mr. Brown said to Ms. Bowser, noting the next two weeks should be "sufficient."

Mr. Brown said he will schedule an additional legislative session this month to conduct the second vote on the bill after its first reading Tuesday. He argued little would be done over the holiday recess if an extension to January were granted.

Yet the mayor and several council members maintained that more time is necessary.

"With big bills like this, there are things that you don't see," council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, told members at their pre-meeting breakfast on Tuesday. "I think we've got to get it right."

Council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, said he would like to keep the Board of Elections and Ethics intact while providing it more auditors and investigators. Ms. Bowser's bill divorces the ethics portion from the body.

Mr. Orange said if the ballot is opened up to proposals in Ms. Bowser's bill, the voters should also weigh in on his proposal to make council members full-time with a prohibition on outside employment.

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