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Nathan criticizes council ethics bill

Calls measures added redundant

An ethics reform bill before the D.C. Council creates a "redundant bureaucratic apparatus," does not deal with the root causes of scandal and fails to support existing agencies charged with oversight of city officials, D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan testified Monday.

Mr. Nathan bluntly told the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment it should broaden his office's subpoena power instead of offering even greater capabilities to a new watchdog office proposed in the legislation.

The Comprehensive Ethics Reform Act of 2011 would create the Office of Government Accountability within the Board of Elections and Ethics to examine standards of conduct, lobbying and conflicts of interest. The office would be empowered to investigate charges of violations and be authorized to impose sanctions.

The bill, co-sponsored by D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown and council member Mary M. Cheh, requires D.C. employees to receive annual ethics training and face maximum penalties of $5,000 for violating standards of conduct. It also requires lobbyists to register online and disclose their business relationships with elected officials.

Ms. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the government operations committee, referred to the bill as a first step that needs "the benefit of everyone's good thinking" to create a finished product.

Mr. Nathan said the council should devote more resources and coordination efforts toward existing agencies, including the Office of Campaign Finance, the Office of the Inspector General, the D.C. auditor and his own office, to "help set an ethical tone that constituents expect of us and of which we can be proud."

His testimony came at a critical junction for ethics in the District, after a sequence of formal actions last week to address mounting political scandals affecting city leaders.

Mr. Nathan's office filed a lawsuit June 6 against council member Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat, who is accused of bilking more than $300,000 in public funds earmarked in 2007 for youth baseball programs for his personal and political use. That same day, the government operations committee heard testimony from 2010 mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown, who claims he was paid and promised a city job by Mayor Vincent C. Gray to bash the incumbent, Adrian M. Fenty, on the campaign trail.

On Friday, the Office of Campaign Finance filed a complaint against Kwame R. Brown's re-election committee accusing the group of failing to report campaign funds in 2008.

Each of the officials has denied any intentional wrongdoing.

With that backdrop, Ms. Cheh and other council members heard testimony from a line of public and government witnesses, including Mr. Nathan, on the best way to fine-tune a bill introduced by Ms. Cheh and Mr. Brown on May 17.

Witnesses criticized the bill for creating bureaucracy without offering clear ways to police government employees or enforce sanctions for violations.

Others criticized the mere mindset of the officials caught in the crosshairs of investigations and oversight hearings.

Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, said it is important to close loopholes and strengthen the law, yet officials already swore they would be ethical leaders.

"I think we all know, and are all saddened and disappointed by, the state of affairs we find ourselves in," Ms. Bowser said.

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