- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A volunteer effort to ban direct corporate contributions to D.C. political campaigns failed to gather enough valid signatures to put the issue before city voters on Nov. 6, officials said Wednesday.

The D.C. Board of Elections denied a request to send the proposed Initiative 70 to voters because its organizers, the D.C. Committee to Restore Public Trust, fell short of the 23,298 verified signatures need to qualify for the ballot during fall general elections for president and several D.C. Council seats. The group’s army of volunteers had collected and submitted more than 30,000 signatures from across the city, but the elections board said only 21,572 were valid, or 1,726 short of the minimum threshold.

Organizer Bryan Weaver said the group will review the tossed-out signatures and consider an appeal to the D.C. Superior Court within the next 10 days. He said many signatures, enough to close the gap, may have been invalidated because addresses were not up to date or nicknames did not match given names in the D.C. voter rolls — glitches that may be surmountable in an appeal.

“We’re going to spend the next few days and go through and see if there are mistakes like that,” he said.

Technically, the group has until mid-September to gather more signatures under the 180-day circulation period. The extra time would allow them to qualify for a future special election if council Chairman Phil Mendelson wins the November election for chairman and permanently vacates the at-large seat he left when former council Chairman Kwame R. Brown had to resign amid felony charges in June. But Mr. Weaver said they have received mixed opinions from the board about whether they are allowed to continue to gather signatures.

Regulations from the election board suggest the group will have to start over. The relevant clause says: “Signatures submitted in support of a rejected initiative or referendum petition shall not be resubmitted for filing in order to qualify the measure for an election ballot.”

The situation coincides with D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s plans to roll out more nuanced legislation intended to curb pay-to-play politics in the city. Outsized influence by corporations — especially ones that do business with the government — is a key point of contention on the national stage. It resonates locally as well because a federal probe has accused a city contractor of injecting at least $650,000 in unreported funds to Mr. Gray’s 2010 campaign.

Critics of Initiative 70 said it simply would drive corporate money underground instead of promoting transparency in local politics.

Mr. Gray has declined to offer a direct opinion on Initiative 70, noting he is in the “latter stages” of offering his own set of proposals after months of deliberation with the D.C. office of the attorney general.

“We spent a long time on this and a lot of effort,” Mr. Gray said at his biweekly press briefing Wednesday. “I think what we want is the best approach, at the end of the day. If it could be done through the initiative, (if) it could be done through the legislation or some amalgamated effort, that’s what we ought to do.”

D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan provided a sneak preview of the mayor’s approach during a June 25 hearing on campaign finance reform before the council’s Committee on Government Operations. Among its reforms, the legislation would require corporations that contribute to a candidate to identify all of its subsidiaries, affiliates and controlling shareholders. In his testimony, Mr. Nathan said Initiative 70 takes a “meat ax” approach to the problem.

Mr. Weaver said he is open to sensible suggestions that go before the council, but argues there has been no movement on serious reform so far.

“I’m trying something,” he said. “I’d just like the council to try something also.”

Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat who is believed to have mayoral aspirations, has been a vocal supporter of the initiative. Mr. Wells repeatedly asked for measures that would clean up campaign finance practices in the city during debate over sweeping ethics reforms late last year and has called out his colleagues for failing to back strong reforms.

“There’s no question there’s a crisis in ethics in D.C. government and the role corporations play in funding elections in D.C. and giving directly to candidates, especially incumbents,” Mr. Wells said.

He said he was “greatly encouraged” by Mr. Nathan’s testimony and hopes the mayor’s eventual proposal lives up to the ideas that were outlined before the committee.

Mr. Gray’s anticipated legislation would bar lobbyists from bundling contributions from other parties, although they could still make personal donations; ban contributions in the form of money orders that exceed $25; require that all reports to the office of campaign finance to be filed electronically; and require candidates to certify that their committees have made every effort to comply with the law, according to Mr. Nathan.

He said the reforms are based on best practices in some states and attempts to level the playing field for non-incumbents who run for office in the District, while protecting the constitutional right of corporations and other organizations to donate to campaigns in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that uphold free speech.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, has said campaign finance reform will be a top priority for city lawmakers when they return in mid-September from their summer recess.

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

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