- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2012

D.C. lawmakers are heaping new bills onto an already deep pile of campaign-finance reforms on the agenda at city hall, creating what amounts to a smorgasbord of solutions aimed at restoring confidence in their scandal-tinged body.

Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, announced Thursday he would reignite debate over proposals he floated during an ethics debate last year, including eliminating constituent-services funds that are made up of donations and leftover campaign money. These funds are supposed to pay forserious needs, such as utility bills and funeral expenses, but have been used to cater community events and provide sports tickets to constituents, which some view as pandering to potential voters.

Mr. Wells also wants to ban corporate donations to D.C. candidates and political contributions from lobbyists, and prohibit his colleagues from holding outside employment. The latter proposal will undoubtedly face stiff opposition from several of his colleagues who hold lucrative jobs at law firms, private companies and universities.

Mr. Wells, who is widely thought to be considering a mayoral bid, laid out his ideas for reform in front of Ward 3 Democrats on Thursday night and issued his support for a separate series of campaign-finance reforms proposed by Mayor Vincent C. Gray and D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan.

“We are in a crisis in our local government and city,” Mr. Wells told the audience in remarks as prepared for delivery. “Our elected government is beset with corruption beyond anything we have seen since the advent of home rule.”

Mr. Gray is slated to send down the package of campaign-finance reforms as soon as next week. The legislation is geared toward limiting pay-to-play politics in the city, including a ban on campaign contributions from those who hold or are seeking contracts of more than $250,000 from the city.

But Mr. Wells said their reforms do not go far enough.

“Our mayor and council, a total of just 14 elected officials, are losing our legitimacy to govern. That is our greatest casualty,” Mr. Wells said in his remarks, which began with references to ongoing investigations by the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia into public corruption.

Taken as a whole, the recent bills add to a series of legislative fixes aimed at erasing the public’s skepticism of the city’s campaign-finance laws — or at least candidates’ abilities to abide by them. Federal investigators this summer outlined evidence of a city contractor’s push for influence through undocumented campaign funds and how straw donations can go undetected if they are submitted via money orders.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, said this week he expected to see the campaign-finance proposals distilled into one bill by the end of the year. The situation mirrors the legislative scene at the John A. Wilson Building last year, when then-council chairman Kwame R. Brown mandated the body to pass comprehensive ethics reform by the close of 2011.

Only this time, election season is in full swing.

Council member Michael A. Brown, at-large independent, introduced a bill that would explore public financing for political campaigns, even as he strenuously defends his own bid for re-election from unrelenting attacks by his opponents in an at-large race that is heating up by the day.

Mr. Brown told his colleagues on Wednesday that “since my first run for public office, I have been talking about the merits of public financing, and now it’s an issue that’s coming to the forefront, so I believe it must be part of the conversation related to campaign finance.”

He introduced the Public Financing of Elections Act of 2012, which would form a task force of government agencies and experts by Jan. 15 to research public campaign-finance systems used in various states.

Mr. Brown is trying to retain one of two at-large seats on the council up for grabs Nov. 6, although fellow incumbent Vincent B. Orange is the Democratic nominee and widely thought to be in the best position to retain his seat. Nine labor unions announced their support for Mr. Brown, but he is contending with the distraction of an alleged theft from his campaign of nearly $114,000, which he discovered and reported to police in June.

One of his challengers, independent David Grosso, questioned the timing of Mr. Brown’s public-financing bill and said he previously mentioned the New York City program in his own set of ethics proposals.

“My opponent is taking on some of my ideas, so at least I’m having some impact,” Mr. Grosso, of Brookland, said Thursday.

He said Mr. Brown had four years to move his legislation but issued a formal call for the task force less than two months before the election.

“It’s one thing to speak about it, it’s another thing to act on it,” Mr. Grosso said.

Mr. Brown, who could not be reached by phone on Thursday, has argued he is the only one talking about the city issues, such as jobs and housing.