- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2012

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray said Wednesday that it is time to take a “broad look” at staffing levels in the Office of Campaign Finance and the laws that govern political contributions to city races.

Elected officials in the District are facing mounting pressure to overhaul the way the city regulates campaign financing, similar to the way they passed sweeping ethics reform at the end of last year.

Federal prosecutors sent subpoenas to at least six D.C. Council members this month requesting records of contributions from Jeffrey E. Thompson, his companies and his associates.

Mr. Gray’s campaign also accepted donations from the network around Mr. Thompson, an accomplished accountant and holder of a lucrative managed-care contract with the city through his D.C. Chartered Health Plan. Mr. Gray’s campaign has not received a subpoena, but it may be unnecessary because the U.S. attorney for the District has been looking into his 2010 campaign since last year.

No one has been accused of wrongdoing, and the mayor has encouraged observers to let the investigation play out. Nonetheless, Mr. Gray and other officials want to know whether the city’s campaign finance office is adequately equipped to vet disclosure forms from the litany of political races in the city.

“It really is a daunting task, and I think one of the things we need to look at is whether we have enough people there to be able to do what is required,” Mr. Gray said, emphasizing that he does not question the caliber of current staff. “I think this could be a favorable time to be able to do that.”

The OCF has reviewed about $10 million in contributions and $12 million in expenditures in the past two years, spokesman Wesley Williams said.

He said the office has a director and 16 employees, with four auditors among them.

“Despite these staff limitations, we do conduct extensive reviews of all reports filed,” Mr. Williams said. “We all take our jobs very seriously and we are dedicated to the mission of this office. Yet, additional staff and other resources would always be welcomed.”

The mayor’s budget proposal for fiscal 2013 is expected to provide additional staffing to the Office of Campaign Finance, although specifics will not be known until he sends the spending plan to the council Friday.

Council member Jacks Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, used an opportunity to speak at Tuesday’s legislative meeting to call for additional resources at the OCF.

“You need a first-class auditing office over there who is going to take this stuff seriously,” Mr. Evans said Wednesday.

Mr. Williams said additional staff should be hired on a permanent basis, not temporarily during an election year.

Meanwhile, some city lawmakers and activists have been scrutinizing corporate influence in city campaigns and the best way to regulate money orders, which were tagged as a potential vehicle for “straw donors” who let someone else use their name to circumvent maximum contribution limits.

Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, has introduced separate bills to ban corporate donations and to treat money-order contributions as if they were cash, capping them at $25.

Mr. Gray said the money-order bill “is an idea that has merit” but should be just one slice of comprehensive reform.

“You know we can do a piece here, a piece here and a piece elsewhere and - perhaps in the course of it - unwittingly miss the larger picture.”

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown said Wednesday that he is already working with Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Government Operations, to fashion a comprehensive campaign finance bill by this summer.

Mr. Evans said he also favors an overarching review instead of “knee-jerk” legislation, but “I don’t think the problem is the law.”

“The laws are fine,” he said. “You really have to comply with the law.”

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

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