D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie won office last month on a platform of restoring ethics to city government, swearing off so-called "bundled contributions" and eliminating pay-to-play politics.
But within weeks of his election, the reform-minded Ward 5 Democrat has had two fundraisers in his honor hosted by the same sort of entrenched, big-moneyed interests whose influence he pledged on the campaign trail to curtail.
On Tuesday evening, renowned D.C. power broker and lobbyist David W. Wilmot hosted a fundraiser at his home for Mr. McDuffie, who emerged victorious last month from a crowded field in a special election to replace disgraced former council member Harry Thomas Jr.
It was the eighth fundraiser hosted this year by Mr. Wilmot, a registered lobbyist whose clients have included Wal-Mart, which is building one of its six D.C. stores in Ward 5, as well as Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, UnitedHealthcare and the Hotel Association of Washington.
An executive with a nonprofit corporation that owns group homes for the developmentally disabled, Mr. Wilmot also lobbies for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which represents drug companies and has been entangled over the years in federal litigation with the D.C. government.
Six of the eight events have been at Mr. Wilmot's home, including fundraisers for newly named Council Chairman Pro Tempore Michael A. Brown, at-large independent; Muriel Bowser, a Ward 4 Democrat who is eyeing a mayoral run in 2014; Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat; Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat; and Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat.
On Wednesday, the politically connected law firm of Holland & Knight held another fundraiser for Mr. McDuffie (the firm also held a fundraiser for him before the election) hosted by Norman M. Glasgow Jr., who represents real estate developers and public and private institutions in zoning, building code and historic preservation law matters before the D.C. government.
Among the firm's more influential members is former city administrative officer Neil Albert, who according to the firm's website specializes in "complex real estate, zoning and economic development matters due to his close relationship with decision makers in government and leaders in the business and real estate development communities."
Holland & Knight also gets paid to influence D.C. lawmakers such as Mr. McDuffie. Its clients last year included CVS Caremark and First Cash Financial Services.
Mr. Wilmot, Mr. Glasgow and Mr. Albert did not return calls or emails.
A former letter carrier and civil rights lawyer, Mr. McDuffie arrives as his predecessor, Mr. Thomas, begins a 38-month federal prison sentence after pleading guilty to a scam to pilfer money from a District-funded youth charity he created. Throughout the campaign, Mr. McDuffie, a 36-year old former Justice Department attorney, said he planned to refuse bundled contributions.
But Mr. McDuffie's definition of what makes for a bundled donation is far more narrow than how federal rules describe the practice, according to one observer. And his pledge to refuse campaign cash from a company that donates to a candidate multiple times through corporate subsidiaries refers to a practice that is already illegal under D.C. law, though rarely enforced.
"My pledge not to accept bundled contributions still stands," Mr. McDuffie said Wednesday. "We haven't eliminated that."
He also said his pledge to restore ethics and eliminate the city's pay-to-play culture, in which contractors get favored treatment and access to lawmakers for campaign cash, isn't affected by his decision to attend fundraisers hosted by lobbyists and special interests.
He said he was not lobbied at either gathering on any pending issues and that there was nothing unethical about either gathering. He noted that his campaign was powered by many small donations of $25 and $100 each.
Instead, Mr. McDuffie said, the gatherings were opportunities for him to discuss with officials in the business community various challenges they face. He said one issue he raised was how to get businesses to hire more D.C. residents. He also insisted the lobbyists and their clients won't have any influence over him, adding that he gives the same attention to people regardless of whether they donated "$25 or $500 or nothing."
"I'm in the community way more than I'm at fundraisers," he said.
As a candidate, the former prosecutor called for strong ethics reform.
"We owe it to residents to place corporations on a level playing field with individuals and to listen to all of our constituents, regardless of campaign contributions," his campaign website stated.
Campaign finance analyst Craig Holman, legislative representative of the watchdog group Public Citizen, said the federal definition of bundling is broader than Mr. McDuffie's, including anybody who gets credit for raising a large amount of campaign cash from multiple and sometimes varied sources.
"Any person who brings in multiple contributions beyond their own is very likely doing so for the purpose of influence peddling or winning favor with the candidate or some special recognition with the candidate," Mr. Holman said. "I give Mr. McDuffie credit for taking some steps to rein in influence peddling."
But Mr. Holman also said Mr. McDuffie's definition of bundling was so narrow that it "isn't that useful" and mostly just bars donations that should be illegal anyway.
That hasn't stopped D.C. politicians, however.
The Washington Times reported earlier this year on instances in which city elected officials, including newly named council chairman Phil Mendelson, accepted donations from interrelated companies headed by Jeffrey E. Thompson, whose office and home were raided in a federal campaign finance probe this year.
Under D.C. law, a corporation and its subsidiaries share a single donation limit, but for years city lawmakers collected donations from Mr. Thompson's companies that when combined doubled or tripled contribution limits.
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