Ethics rules let D.C. Council members shield outside income

Chairman got $45,000 in ‘09

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D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown last year reported earning $45,000 in outside income on top of his six-figure government salary for 2009, but who paid him and why is anybody’s guess. City ethics rules don’t require Mr. Brown to say.

Mr. Brown, a Democrat and at-large council member before his recent election as chairman, is among a group of five council members who last year reported earning tens of thousands of dollars in outside income in 2009.

As chairman, Mr. Brown is restricted in his ability to earn outside pay, but other council members are free to earn money on the side. In some cases, lawmakers’ outside pay eclipses their government salaries of about $125,000 per year.

A review of council members’ most recent financial statements on file with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance reflects varying levels of disclosure about outside employment. Some statements list an employer, some don’t. In the end, it’s up to the lawmakers to police themselves on potential conflicts of interest.

D.C. rules require lawmakers to make public their outside income sources only if an employer or client did business with the city government or stood to gain from pending legislation during the past calendar year.

By contrast, political appointees in the federal government sign ethics forms that must include all clients or employers who have paid the appointee more than $5,000 during a one-year reporting period — regardless of whether the employer or client did business with the government.

Mr. Brown, who has pledged to make government more transparent, noted on his disclosure form that he earned $45,000 through “self-employment.” His office did not respond to questions about whether he has a registered business, what sort of work he performed and who hired him.

Ethics analysts say that although D.C. lawmakers appear to comply with the letter of the law, the city’s rules don’t go far enough.

“Personal financial disclosure requirements are designed to serve far greater interests than simply show if a government contractor is trying to buy an officeholder,” said Craig Holman, an ethics specialist and legislative representative at D.C.-based Public Citizen, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

“These reports are also designed to shed light on who, and which business interests, may be seeking favorable treatment through legislation, licenses, tax policies or regulation,” he said.

Judy Nadler, senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, said of the disclosure policies, “The fact is, these are significant amounts well in excess of their council salaries.” Added Anne Bauer, researcher at the National Institute on Money in State Politics, “There’s a need to know more.”

Wesley Williams, a spokesman for the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, defended the city’s financial disclosure rules.

“The honorarium and financial disclosure statute is designed to capture the financial interest of public officials in businesses that do business with the District of Columbia government,” he said, adding that the honorarium and disclosure policies act in tandem.

“Thus, any existing or potential conflict of interest a member of the council may be confronted with that may or may not have been disclosed in the council member’s [financial disclosure] would be covered under the conflict-of-interest statute,” he said.

“Accordingly, the existence of the conflict would require the council member to recuse himself when matters involving that entity are before the council,” Mr. Williams said. “Therefore, we believe the current disclosure requirements are sufficient for our enforcement responsibilities under both statutes.”

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