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.”
Council members Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, and Michael A. Brown, at-large independent, both lawyers, took home more than $200,000 each in outside pay in 2009. Neither disclosed any clients they represented, though Mr. Evans did report the name of the law firm that employs him, Patton Boggs LLP.
Two other council members with six-figure outside salaries disclosed information about their employers. Council member David A. Catania, at-large independent, disclosed earning $120,000 per year as general counsel of OpenBand of Virginia LLC, a licensed telecommunications carrier and a wholly owned subsidiary of Northern Virginia-based M.C. Dean. On disclosure forms, Mr. Catania said he recuses himself from any matters involving M.C. Dean, which has held contracts with the D.C. government.
Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, has reported earning more than $200,000 from her job as a law professor at George Washington University.
Neither Michael A. Brown nor Mr. Evans listed any information about the clients they work for in their law practice. Michael Brown also did not identify the name of the law firm where he works, disclosing only that he had earned $250,000.
A spokeswoman for Michael Brown said he earned the money from his position as a lawyer at the Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge law firm. Asked whether he would consider making public the clients for whom he works, the spokeswoman said Mr. Brown is in full compliance with all city ethics rules and regulations.
Mr. Evans listed Patton Boggs as his employer because ethics rules require lawmakers to identify employers doing business with the District. Patton Boggs has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years lobbying Congress on behalf of both the city’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development and the office of the chief financial officer, which is overseen by the council finance committee that Mr. Evans heads.
According to U.S. Senate forms, the lobbying relationship terminated last year.
Mr. Evans, who reported earning $240,000 as a lawyer at Patton Boggs, has recused himself from matters involving the firm’s lobbying work for the District. Patton Boggs has a long list of federal lobbying clients.
As a council member, Mr. Evans worked on a tax-abatement deal last year to help lure defense giant Northrop Grumman to the District, though the plans never materialized. Subsequently, Patton Boggs filed papers with the U.S. Senate indicating that the firm was lobbying Congress on behalf of Northrop Grumman on unrelated federal issues.
In general, the lack of disclosure about outside legal work leaves the public in the dark, with lawmakers in a position to decide what constitutes a potential conflict and when to report it, Mr. Holman said.
“Outside income is an ideal opportunity for a business to curry favor with a legislator, especially when that outside money may be substantial and when disclosure is incomplete or even nonexistent,” Mr. Holman said.
“The incomplete records of Mr. Evans, for example, fail to arrest citizen concerns of undue influence peddling,” he said.
Those same questions also concern D.C. resident John Hanrahan, a former Washington Post reporter who first raised questions about Mr. Evans‘ work on the Northrop Grumman tax deal last year on the website of the watchdog group D.C. Watch. Mr. Hanrahan said there was an appearance of a conflict of interest.
Mr. Evans‘ office did not respond to e-mail questions about his work for Patton Boggs. In 2003, the Office of Campaign Finance issued a formal opinion stating that Mr. Evans‘ role as chairman of the council’s finance committee would not pose a conflict of interest with his employment with Patton Boggs as long as he continued to refrain from any activity suggesting his roles on the council and law firm overlapped.