- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 27, 2011

Mayor Vincent C. Gray is touting broader powers for the D.C. attorney general and restrictions on funds that are supposed to assist needy constituents as part of six key points that “must be included” in any ethics reform legislation he would sign.

Mr. Gray sent a letter to D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser to lay out his priorities for ethics reform as the Committee on Government Operations mulls 10 separate bills aimed at restoring faith in the city’s public officials.

The letter arrived while Ms. Bowser, the committee’s chairwoman, listened to almost eight hours of testimony Wednesday on the best way to reinforce ethics laws.

Mr. Gray said he will cooperate with the council’s efforts — his priorities seem largely to dovetail with their talking points — although he has asserted his own agenda through several “guiding principles.”

The mayor emphasizes clarity in the city’s laws, resources and subpoena power for enforcement agencies and authorization for the D.C. attorney general to sanction ethical violations through civil suits, when appropriate.

In his letter, Mr. Gray does not broach the subject of criminal prosecution power for the city’s top lawyer, a topic that came up when Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan had to refer a civil case against council member Harry Thomas Jr. to the U.S. attorney’s office for possible prosecution.

Mr. Gray also wants to strengthen the city’s financial disclosure system, address potential conflicts of interest in post-government employment, and “place significant restrictions on constituent services accounts.”

Specifically, he would like to restrict “the type of things the funds are used for” and focus on emergent needs such as funerals, utilities or toys for needy children around the holidays, a spokeswoman said.

The council debated the best approach to constituent services funds Wednesday, with a general consensus it is better to tighten up the way they are spent instead of scrapping them altogether.

The funds, which consist of leftover campaign dollars and private donations, became a hot political topic in recent months.

The Washington Times reported in April that council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, used less than 5 percent of her fund on the types of needs Mr. Gray’s office cited. Yet in August, the Office of Campaign Finance cleared her after investigating whether the spending violated the District’s broadly written law governing use of the funds.

The D.C. Republican Committee pounced on the topic as well, accusing various members of using the funds to donate to political groups.

A quartet of bills before the council addresses the funds, particularly their appropriate use and whether the $80,000 limit on each fund should be reduced.

Ms. Bowser has a bill that would cap the funds at $40,000, while council member Mary M. Cheh would place the limit at $20,000 and council member Tommy Wells has proposed a $10,000 cap.

The bills from Mr. Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, and Ms. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, also place restrictions on using leftover funds to set up or donate to a nonprofit — a response to former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s decision to place thousands of dollars in unused constituent services funds in a nascent nonprofit he created as he left office.

While he waits for the council to act, Mr. Gray — himself under investigation for ethics-related issues involving his campaign and the hiring practices of his administration — said he is taking steps to beef up ethics compliance in the executive branch. He asked the office of the attorney general to distribute an ethics manual that explains a hodgepodge of ethics standards in “plain language.”

“These standards are complex, confusing and sometimes contradictory,” he said, explaining the need for clarity.

The mayor’s staff formed a 10-point ethics pledge for members of the administration to sign, and Mr. Gray has directed the D.C. Department of Human Resources to form a program of ethics training for all D.C. employees, starting with “ethics counselors” designated within each agency.

“As you know, recent events have caused many District residents to have concerns about their elected leaders,” Mr. Gray wrote in his letter to Ms. Bowser. “And as I’m sure you will agree, ethical lapses by government officials constitute a breach of trust with our citizens.”



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