Bowser introduces D.C. ethics-reform bill

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D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser has released her widely anticipated ethics-reform bill, which creates a three-member oversight body and makes drastic changes to council members’ controversial constituent services fund.

The proposed legislation by Ms. Bowser — Ward 4 Democrat and chairwoman of the Committee on Government Operations — takes ideas from 10 ethics bills and attempts to be the starting point for restoring public faith in city lawmakers after two years of political scandal.

The constituent services funds are essentially intended to help residents in dire need of financial assistance. But the money has more recently been used for catering, office space and sports tickets.

Ms. Bowser’s legislation would cut from $80,000 to $40,000 the amount of money a council member could raise for his or her fund. However, the bill does not include more controversial measures such as term limits on elected officials and banning council members from outside employment.

Under the bill, permissible uses for constituent funds would include funeral expenses, utility bills and certain community events, while prohibited expenditures would include political contributions and season tickets to sports events.

The bill’s proposed independent Board of Ethics and Government Accountability would be composed of three members appointed by the mayor and approved by the council.

Ms. Bowser signaled last month that the city may need an independent board “that will focus solely on ethics issues” to complement the work of the Office of Campaign Finance, the Board of Elections and Ethics and individual agencies’ ethics rules.

The legislation tasks the Office of Campaign Finance with the new responsibilities until July 1. Then the new ethics board would take over the responsibilities and active OCF investigations.

Nominees to the board must be named within 45 days, the bill states. They would have subpoena power to enforce the council’s code of conduct and could impose fines of $5,000-per-violation. Council members who violate the code could lose their chairmanships and ability to vote in a committee.

The legislation also sets rules on post-election transition committees and caps political contributions at $2,000 for the mayor and $1,000 for the council chairman. It also requires the rolling, online publication of the names of newly registered lobbyists.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray and two council members are under investigation by federal prosecutors, either directly or indirectly through their campaign teams. And seven of the 13 council members have been accused of ethical lapses in the past two years.

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown said he wanted to pass a comprehensive ethics reform bill by the end of the year. Ms. Bowser has scheduled a committee hearing for Nov. 30 to review the draft bill.

Council member Tommy Wells said Friday that the draft “seems to be missing” a ban on bundling — in which multiple campaign donations are presented as one contribution — and a ban on lobbyists and contractors with business before the city from donating to campaigns.

“I’ll be looking to amend the bill, but it’s a good first step and just a first step,” said Mr. Wells, Ward 6 Democrat.

Implementing the proposals in Ms. Bowser’s legislation would cost the city $600,000 to $800,000, according to “early discussions” within the city’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer.

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