Loose Lips

Ethics Orgy: The D.C. Council is Awash in Ethics Legislation. Which Pols are Posing, and Which are Posing Just a Bit Less?

Swing a live cat in the Wilson Building these days and chances are, before you’re escorted outside by security, ol’ Whiskers will land on a D.C. councilmember proposing some sort of ethics reform.

So far, five councilmembers—Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser, Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells, and At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange—have introduced ethics bills this year. At least one more, Councilmember Phil Mendelson, says he has legislation in the works.

The motivation isn’t hard to suss out. “Everybody recognized that the people are sick and tired,” says Bowser.

Indeed. It’s been a rough go lately for the council’s ethical reputation. The lapses have left good government types speechless with rage, and left several councilmembers just plain speechless. Brown can’t explain what happened to $170,000 in campaign funds that were paid to his brother. Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. can’t explain why $300,000 earmarked for “youth baseball” was spent on an Audi SUV, golf trips, and a meal at Hooters, among other things. Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham can’t explain why he didn’t tell anyone when his former chief of staff offered him a cash-filled envelope from an undercover FBI agent looking to get a slice of the city’s taxi market.

Throw in questions over how some councilmembers are spending constituent-service dollars (Ward 2’s Jack Evans spends several thousand dollars each year on season tickets for the city’s sporting events, which he says he then donates to charities) and it explains why a number of challengers seem to think that the anti-corruption platform will be the way to oust an incumbent next year.

“The council has lost its moral compass,” says Fiona Greig, a consultant who is gearing up to challenge Evans in next year’s election. Other candidates, including Max Skolnik in Ward 4 and independent at-large challenger David Grosso, have emphasized the dearth of ethical leadership on the council in their brief campaigns. And hardly a day goes by when LL doesn’t get some message from the local Republican Party—which currently boasts a grand total of zero councilmembers—making many of the same points.

It’s worth noting, though, that we’ve seen this show before in District politics.

Former Mayor Sharon Pratt, after being dinged for various ethical issues, formed an “Ethics Reform Task Force” back in 1992. One of the group’s recommendations, that councilmembers be full-time legislators prohibited from having outside employment, went exactly nowhere.

“Scandals flare, action is called for, and things stay the same,” says Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, who served on Pratt’s task force. “Truly effective action being implemented—that’s been the constant failure for the last twenty years.

Lynch says asking the council to try to police itself is a hopeless endeavor. “That’s like telling a tiger don’t eat meat.”

Maybe. But the cats on the council still seem intent on giving veggies a try.

So far the biggest grandstander has been Orange, who summoned reporters to a news conference on Monday to tout a package of ethics-reform bills that includes term limits on elected officials and a requirement that councilmembers forgo outside employment. Orange repeatedly denounced unnamed “entrenched” interests and various council “conflict of interests” that were thwarting the “will of the people.”

“One man with courage is a majority,” said Orange, who is widely expected to run for council chairman or mayor in 2014. “We’re setting up a new deal for the District of Columbia.”

Orange’s efforts to position himself as Vince the Uncorruptible leave Wilson Building types snickering. After all, it was Orange who voted with the majority in 2001 to overturn a voter referendum imposing term limits. (He says he’s since had a change of heart.) And the denunciation of entrenched interests is a bit hard to swallow considering that much of Orange’s last campaign was bankrolled by Jeff Thompson, whose managed care organization controls one of the city’s biggest contracts.

Next on the grandstanding list is Brown, who partnered with Cheh to introduce the “Comprehensive Ethics Reform Act” earlier this year. Brown boasted to the Washington Times earlier this month that he was in a “perfect position” to push the council towards passing ethics reform, despite the fact that the U.S. Attorney’s Office is investigating his campaign spending. Brown spent part of last week on an uncomfortable media tour touting his plans for ethics reform while getting visibly annoyed when reporters asked questions about his campaign finances or why he hasn’t paid the city back for the luxury Lincoln Navigators the city briefly leased for his use.

Brown and Cheh’s bill, which relied largely on input from Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute and calls for creating an “Office of Government Accountability,” has been widely panned: The good-government group City Ethics called it “toothless,” while District Attorney General Irv Nathan lambasted it as unnecessarily bureaucratic. Nathan, who thrashed the bill at a July committee hearing, was still ripping it to shreds at a Ward 3 Democrats meeting last week, saying the city doesn’t need to create useless bureaucracy “willy nilly.”

Brown’s bill “clearly did not strike a good chord, given the reaction,” says Mendelson.

A few rungs down the ladder is Cheh, who introduced a bill of her own on Tuesday—another sign that Brown’s legislation is in trouble, but also an indication that the Ward 3 Democrat, having caught flak for being too cozy with both Brown and the troubled Gray administration, wants to do something memorable to bolster her good-government reputation. “I don’t want to make a big deal out of it,” says Cheh, whose office sent out not one but two press releases touting the measure—which, among other things, would limit donations from firms that do business with the District.

Then there are the other members pushing ethics bills. Wells wants to ban the longstanding tradition of campaign bundling, whereby a single entity can circumvent the maximum campaign donation limits. And he wants to stop lobbyists from acting as councilmembers’ personal lawyers—a slap at Brown and Thomas, who are both represented by Fred Cooke Jr.

Wells gets points for addressing issues his colleagues wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, but he’s certainly not exempt from a little grandstanding of his own. “I don’t want to be doing all this ethics stuff. I’m pissed off about it. It really is not why I ran for office,” says Wells, who also has political aspirations that reach beyond his current station.

That leaves us with Bowser, who has been less of a bully pulpiteer on ethics but this week announced that she “leads” in ethics reform. Bowser’s actually in a position to make such a boast, thanks to a recent committee reshuffling, which—to her initial disappointment—made her chair of the Council’s Committee on Government Operations. By virtue of that position, Bowser takes the lead on crafting whatever legislation winds up in front of the full council. Her own bill would, among other things, place limits on how much politicians can take in through inaugural funds.

Bowser says she expects a “flood” of ethics legislation to come to her committee, but says she’s shooting for a “speedy” resolution.

Passing a dead forest’s worth of bills within a reasonable amount of time might go a ways towards repairing the Council’s public image. But would it actually stop repeat transgressions in the future? After all, there are already laws against some of the things that people like Thomas have been accused of doing. Maybe what D.C. needs isn’t just better laws—it’s better councilmembers.

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Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

Comments

  1. #1

    I liked Lindenfeld's suggestions.

  2. #2

    I like Orange's legislation, term limits for the Mayor, Chairman and Couoncil, full time jobs on the city council no more conflicting jobs and not enough attention to the council position they ran for, and end constient funds. Keep Orange and Bowser and get rid of the rest of the game players who have no ethics and keep compromising with each other. City Council, Chair and Mayor need to start out fresh with a new way of doing business and taking the position to do something good for the city.

  3. #3

    Awesome, awesome graphic.

  4. #4

    CM Evans' staffer Windy Abdul Rahim called the Wilson Building the "den of iniquity"; she's got a front row seat.

  5. #5

    Why do you give Michael Brown a free ride wtih his tax issues, gambling interests, conflicts of interest etc. he may be the worst

  6. #6

    Another Orange change of heart. He wants NW voters one year and then hoodwinks the crowd east of the river the next with his racial politics. He's a fan of school reform and begs for a WaPo endorsement one year and then turns around to be the WTU's best friend and pickets WaPo the next. What a sham!

  7. #7

    Yeah these CMs with outside incomes are DC members of "The Greedy Bastards Club". If they were truly civic minded public servants they would keep their outside jobs but serve as that old WWII "dollar a year men" civic minded citizens.

  8. #8

    Good grief, LL. You need an editor.

    The whole article could have been summed up with your last line--"Maybe what D.C. needs isn’t just better laws—it’s better councilmembers."--and Brooke Hatfield's hilariously awesome graphic.

  9. #9

    Where are Barry and Alexander in this graphic?

  10. #10

    keep bowser...you must not live in ward 4. put her in your ward and you can have her...her shit just ain't hit the fan yet cause fenty covered for her!

  11. #11

    They both white and black) appear like chimps in that photo, lol. The camera lens doesn't lie!

  12. #12

    DR. ZAIUS DR. ZAIUS !

  13. #13

    cHEH AS zIRA

  14. #14

    Lindenfeld's suggestions are better than any proposed by these CM's.

  15. #15

    hahaha @Wayne your mom probably had a change of heart to bring you in this world, but we don't blame her.

    I wish the supreme court changed their mind about Troy Davis

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  1. David Grosso for D.C. City Council 2012 » Ethics Orgy: The D.C. Council is Awash in Ethics Legislation. Which Pols are Posing, and Which are Posing Just a Bit Less?

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