D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown on Monday pledged to revisit open-ended laws that govern how city legislators can spend money from constituent service accounts as part of a sweeping ethics reform bill that he says is decades overdue and intended to diffuse mounting distrust of city government.
There are expenses “that just don’t make any sense, that just shouldn’t be,” Mr. Brown said of recent disclosures that council members have spent money from the lightly regulated constituent service accounts for catering, rent payments and professional sports tickets. “But I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bath water either.”
The council chairman will resume his first year at the helm this week after a spirited budget process and a summer recess. In a wide-ranging interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, he laid out his vision for what he termed the “hippest city in America,” an agenda that includes tangible returns on job-training funds, equity in education and ethics reform.
With regard to reform, Mr. Brown cited the D.C. law on constituent service funds, which authorizes council members to raise up to $80,000 annually and gives them wide latitude to spend the money for the benefit of their constituents.
He noted that while much of the money goes for charitable purposes, such as providing winter hats, scarves and gloves to children and backpacks to students, the law has been overlooked for too long. He said he plans to address it as part of a sweeping ethics-reform bill expected by the end of the year.
“Our ethics laws have not been addressed since 1978 in the District of Columbia,” he said. “I think that we should have a comprehensive ethics reform bill that comes out of the council, not a piece-by-piece-by-piece approach.”
Mr. Brown said the council is a “solid institution,” despite scrutiny over perceived ethical lapses on the parts of members during the first eight months of the year. Notably, council member Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat, agreed to pay $300,000 to settle a lawsuit in which the D.C. attorney general said he siphoned off money earmarked for youth baseball.
Yvette Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, and Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, recently were the subjects of news reports critical of their constituent service spending, while a senior staff member for Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, pleaded guilty this year to accepting money from a member of the taxicab industry who sought beneficial legislation.
Michael Brown, at-large independent, has been criticized for proposing Internet gambling, or iGaming, in the District while failing to disclose his connections to the industry.
“The institution itself has done a phenomenal job,” Kwame Brown said of the council as a whole. “Clearly, there’s been issues with different members, whether it’s been Harry Thomas, whether it’s been Jack Evans, whether it’s been Jim Graham’s staff, whether it’s been Yvette Alexander … people say there’s been issues with iGaming.”
Mr. Brown himself faces scrutiny from the U.S. attorney’s office after an audit by the Office of Campaign Finance found his 2008 re-election committee didn’t report more than $100,000 in contributions and failed to report or substantiate hundreds of thousands of dollars more in expenditures, among other financial irregularities.
He came under fire this year for requesting a “fully loaded” Lincoln Navigator for official use, leading to the public leasing of two expensive sport utility vehicles after the first one did not meet his specifications. Mr. Brown has taken full responsibility for the incident.
Asked whether his personal issues could affect his efforts to push reform, he said, “No, I think I’m in a perfect position to push it.”
Mr. Brown said he campaigned on a platform of reform and introduced the first in a series of ethics bills by various council members last spring to “start the conversation.” He has asked council member Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat and new chairwoman of the Committee on Government Operations, to help assimilate the ethics-related bills.
Mr. Brown also addressed the District’s first-in-the-nation plans for iGaming, the program that would allow the D.C. Lottery to host online gambling on home computers and at limited public hot spots.
Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, plans to introduce a bill on Sept. 20 to repeal the program, which passed into law through a budget bill in December without public hearings.
While Mr. Brown stopped short of supporting Mr. Wells’ bill before he sees it, he expressed concern about whether online gambling is the best way to raise revenue. As for his personal feelings about games of chance, he put it all on the table.
“Let me just be clear — I oppose all gambling,” he said. “I don’t like any gambling. I don’t even like the lottery. Never played it before, I don’t like it. I think the lottery was created for a certain purpose, [but] we’ve moved away from that.”
Mr. Brown said he will rely on the D.C. inspector general to address the controversy surrounding the initial D.C. Lottery contract that was awarded two years ago, when a Maryland businessman replaced the local partner with Greek operator Intralot and raised questions about backroom political dealing.
On jobs, Mr. Brown said the city should demand a better return on its investments. Despite its prosperity and reputation as recession-proof, the District has a double-digit unemployment rate that skyrockets east of the Anacostia River.
“If you look at our training dollars, the large percentage of our training dollars are going to soft skills,” he said, which includes “pulling your pants up” and “getting to work on time.”
He said the city should “get past” spending its money on those efforts. Rather, the city needs to focus on people with literacy and substance-abuse problems, and also qualified people with master’s degrees who still cannot find a job, he said.
In short, it’s about getting “quality outcomes” on expensive, government-funded training programs for people who are ready and willing to go to work.
“If you can’t tell me who got a job, that’s a problem,” he said.
On education, Mr. Brown noted that school buildings have been modernized and teachers are being held accountable for their performance, but the city needs to emphasize equity among its middle schools to ensure that each student gets a quality education as parents scramble to get their children into the best “feeder” schools in the District ahead of high school.
“If we’re going to attract families to the District of Columbia, if we’re going to help employers operate and move to the District, we have to improve our middle schools,” said Mr. Brown, who held a public hearing on middle-grades education last week.
He said parents must take an interest in their children’s education and ensuring their attendance.
“There are just too many parents that are just not involved in their children’s lives,” he said, “and we have to make them accountable, too.”