- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Council Member Tommy Wells introduced a trio of bills on Tuesday to close ethics loopholes in response to a series of scandals that have plagued city hall in recent months.

The legislation would prohibit the District from procuring luxury vehicles, make aspects of campaign finance more transparent and “right-size” reporting dates after primary elections were moved from September to April.

“I want people to see we can self-correct, we can police ourselves and we can address our own issues,” Mr. Wells said of the measures.

The legislation arrives at a time when city officials are increasingly checking each other through oversight hearings and reform measures.

The bundle of bills preceded the introduction of an ethics reform bill on Tuesday by council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat. His bill creates an ethics and accountability committee and is similar to an ethics bill introduced on May 17 by Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown and council member Mary M. Cheh.

Mr. Wells‘ first bill sets limits on the types of vehicle the District may lease and purchase, including parameters on the size of the city fleet and each vehicle’s fuel efficiency standards.

Mr. Brown, the chairman, came under fire earlier this year for requesting a “fully loaded” Lincoln Navigator for official use, leading to the public leasing of two expensive SUVs after the first one did not meet his specifications. Mr. Brown has taken full responsibility for the incident.

A second bill creates a “transition and inaugural committee” category that must report its finances to the Office of Campaign Finance; prohibits “bundling” of donations from a single business interest that are funneled through subsidiaries; and prevents an elected official from creating a nonprofit to spend unused constituent services funds.

Mr. Wells said the latter part of the bill was based on actions by former mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who placed thousands of dollars in unused constituent services funds in a nascent nonprofit that he created as he left office.

Mr. Wells said his third bill, which passed as emergency legislation on Tuesday, will fix an error created when primary elections were moved from September to April. Despite the shift, no changes were made to the campaign finance reporting schedule.

Council member Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, expressed concern about adjusting the system while candidates are gearing up for the next election.

A member of Mr. Wells staff said the measure, in effect, simply “right-sized” the election calendar by adding the reporting dates of Oct. 10 and Dec. 10 to equal the same amount of reporting dates as in past elections.

“What we did is keep continuity and expectations,” Mr. Wells said. “At no time should the candidate have believed that their reporting requirements would be lessened.”

By introducing the bills, Mr. Wells said he wants D.C. residents to “stay hopeful and positive about our city government.”

Mr. Wells praised the efforts of Mrs. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment, who held several hearings on the hiring practices of Mayor Vincent C. Gray and his transition team.

The committee heard numerous hours of testimony about apparent “fast-track” hirings of people connected to the campaign and the allegations of Sulaimon Brown, who says he was paid and promised a city job to disparage Mr. Fenty on the campaign trail.

Federal prosecutors are putting the allegations before a grand jury, according to a report Tuesday in the Washington Examiner.

Mrs. Cheh said the excepted service system, consisting of political appointees who serve at the will of the mayor, should be “tightened up,” and noted the onslaught of ethics questions appeared to “sap the spirit” of the District.

“I hope there are no more shoes to drop,” Mrs. Cheh said, noting elected officials should be guided by their instincts. “If in doubt, don’t do it. We really ought to have an internal compass.”

An ethics bill introduced by Mrs. Cheh and the council chairman requires city employees to take ethics training and creates the Office of Government Accountability, among other reforms.

Mr. Orange, who joined the council in May, introduced a similar ethics bills on Tuesday that would bring together members of the Board of Elections and Ethics, the Office of Campaign Finance, the Office of the Attorney General, the Office of the Inspector General and the Office of the D.C. Auditor to examine lapses by public officials.

Mr. Orange acknowledged his bill is similar to the existing piece of legislation, but said hearings should be held to derive the best parts of each.

“I don’t think we should rush with this piece, but we should move fairly quickly … and get it right,” Mr. Orange said.

Mrs. Cheh agreed that the council should form the best bill possible, noting she would like to have results by fall.

“There’s not pride of authorship, as far as I’m concerned,” she said.

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