- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The D.C. Council passed sweeping ethics legislation on Tuesday for the first time in decades in an attempt to restore faith in City Hall after a series of stumbles that ranged from questionable personnel decisions to more serious actions that prompted ongoing criminal probes.

The council’s approval of the bill on a 12-1 vote fulfills a promise by Chairman Kwame R. Brown to pass an ethics-reform bill by the end of the year, setting the tone for 2012 even as the U.S. attorney’s office continues to look into reports of misdeeds by elected officials or their campaign teams.

“We did not duck any of the tough issues,” council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, said of the tortuous process that resulted in the final vote.

Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, offered the lone dissenting vote on the bill, saying it does not shed enough light on certain campaign finance practices.

Among reforms hammered out Tuesday, the council established a procedure to censure or expel one of its members and decided it may use constituent services funds to pay for sports tickets.

“Clearly, everyone did not get everything they wanted, but this is a step in the right direction,” Mr. Brown said.

Council member Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, distilled the bill from 12 measures put before her as chairwoman of the Committee on Government Operations, after a steady stream of allegations and perceived lapses in judgment by multiple public officials.

Among them, the home of council member Harry Thomas Jr. was raided by federal investigators this month in connection with charges he bilked $300,000 of taxpayer funds earmarked for youth baseball programs. The U.S. attorney’s office is investigating whether financial irregularities on the part of Mr. Brown’s 2008 re-election committee amount to criminal conduct. A grand jury reportedly is investigating charges that Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s campaign team paid a minor candidate to bash incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

Ms. Bowser’s legislation establishes new financial-disclosure rules and sets up a three-member board of ethics to police and sanction officials who violate the city government’s code of conduct and the public’s trust, among other reforms.

The amendment process to fine-tune the bill on Tuesday took several hours and included contentious exchanges among members about the best way to police themselves.

Marion Barry said reporters were hyping the charges.

“The media is driving the train,” the Ward 8 Democrat said. “Nobody gave them that power.”

The council agreed that to expel a member, five members of the council would have to initiate an investigation by the ethics board.

A five-member, ad hoc committee of the council would recommend whether to reprimand, censure or expel a member, and the final action would need 11 votes from the full council. That aspect of the legislation will require approval by D.C. voters before it becomes law.

Voters also will be asked to weigh in on a provision that expels a member upon a felony conviction, rather than requiring incarceration before expulsion.

The legislation reduces from $80,000 to $40,000 the amount of money the mayor and each council member can raise for a constituent services fund, which is composed of leftover campaign dollars and private donations.

Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, unsuccessfully argued a “constituent services fund” should be called a “council services fund” to reflect its actual, broader usage.

“People have expectations that it’s used only for people who are behind in their Pepco bill, for example,” Mr. Mendelson said. “Ordinarily, the name is not that important, but here a lot of the criticism has been because of the name and not the use.”

Ms. Bowser’s version of the bill had restricted the funds’ use to ensure they meet D.C. residents’ urgent needs instead of being spent on catering or season tickets to sporting events.

Yet council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, successfully argued that officials should be allowed to use the funds on season tickets to sports or cultural events. His amendment passed on an 8-5 voice vote.

Mr. Evans was unable to persuade his colleagues to raise the ceiling on the funds back to $80,000.

Mr. Wells voiced the strongest objections to both measures, taking to Twitter to call the passage of the sports-tickets proposal “unbelievable.”

“I think we’ve taken a step back on constituent services funds, to where it really is enshrined today as a slush fund with very little limits on what members can use it for,” he said after the meeting.

Ms. Bowser tweaked the ethics bill prior to Tuesday’s session by returning the number of signatures needed on recall petitions to 10 percent of registered voters after an earlier version knocked it down to 5 percent. The final bill retained a provision that changes D.C. law to allow recall efforts in the first or fourth year of an elected official’s term if he or she violates the code of conduct in a substantial way.

Mr. Wells could not get his colleagues to sign on to a measure that would require additional disclosure rules on city contractors who donate to political campaigns or a provision to shine a light on parent companies that donate multiple times through subsidiary, limited-liability companies in a process called “bundling.”

Earlier Tuesday, Ms. Bowser said such issues “need to be dealt with in a broad discussion of campaign finance reform.”

Mr. Orange failed in his bid to keep the Board of Elections and Ethics intact. The bill divorces the ethics-related duties from the board and bans outside employment among council members starting in 2019 to “grandfather in” current legislators.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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