- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2011

D.C. Council members on Wednesday took on the awkward task of addressing their own mechanisms for policing themselves and their colleagues in government, engaging in hours of debate on a slew of proposals aiming to overhaul city ethics laws.

The debate, expected to result in the crafting and consideration of a comprehensive ethics-reform bill by the end of the year, comes as the public’s faith in city lawmakers has been damaged by a shaky year for the District’s elected officials.

Council member Muriel Bowser, in charge of shaping the reforms, said the city needs to take drastic steps to change a “lopsided” approach to ethics that currently lacks investigative resources and strong enforcement.

Ms. Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Government Operations, said 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 (BOEE) and individual agencies’ ethics rules.

“The ethics laws of the District of Columbia are fragmented, and the responsibilities of different agencies have evolved over time in ways that leave gaps in our ethics enforcement,” Kenneth McGhie, general counsel for BOEE, said.

Council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, said it would not be wise to invest those oversight powers with the council.

“I don’t see that taking place in this climate,” he said.

Ms. Bowser’s committee is considering 10 bills seeking to remedy shortcomings in ethics laws that were exposed by a series of recent scandals involving public-office holders.

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.

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown has said he wants to see the final bill by the end of the year, and Ms. Bowser’s timeline includes a committee mark-up in November.

On Wednesday, her first public hearing on ethics reform ranged from general concerns to the specific goals of individual council members.

Mr. Orange brought the idea of term limits for elected officials to the table, and Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, said lobbyists who influence legislation should not then act as a personal attorney for a member under investigation.

Other proposals before the council include additional ethics training for D.C. officials, a prohibition on outside employment by council members, fuller disclosure of financial interests and caps on constituent services funds.

“Virtually nothing that is being presented here is new,” council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and the council’s longest-serving member, said from the dais.

He said the problem lies in a lack of disclosure and penalties “that are not nearly severe enough.”

Dorothy Brizill, who runs the D.C. watchdog website DC Watch, said the city’s oversight bodies lack an adequate number of investigators and have not enforced sanctions.

Ethical lapses have “battered” the city’s reputation and threaten to derail the District’s prosperity, said Barbara Lang, president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.

“We do question, however, if this is a case of our government officials just not understanding right from wrong,” Ms. Lang said. “No amount of legislation is going to fix that.”

David A. Catania, at-large independent who has served on the council since 1997, said the debate on ethics reform marks “a low-point in this body.”

“I can’t remember a time when so many members were under investigation or a cloud of suspicion,” he said.

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

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