Mayor Vincent C. Gray's campaign reform legislation is expected to be considered in about a week by the D.C. Council, but there is no clear indication that council members will embrace the proposed changes.
Gray and Attorney General Irvin Nathan recently unveiled their version of campaign finance reform. In the past, those on the council who've introduced legislation proposing reform have generally not gotten a great deal of support from their colleagues. If they are frustrated by the lack of support, some reformers on the council aren't showing it.
"I'm glad the mayor has joined the call for campaign reform," said Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells. "There is a crisis in ethics in politics in D.C. This will be a test for the city council to see if they're willing to support reform."
Wells, 55, said he planned to announce at a Ward 3 Democratic meeting that he strongly supports Gray's proposals which he said includes a number of items he's already introduced to the chamber.
"I strongly support it but it doesn't go far enough," he said. "There's a lot of good in it but he should go further. He did address and embrace some sound ideas but I believe we should restrict corporate donations to local elections like 23 other states do and we need to go further on restricting constituency services funds."
Almost from the beginning of his tenure as mayor, Gray and his administration has been entangled in several federal investigations into activities surrounding his 2010 election campaign.
He has been fending off allegations of paying off minor mayoral candidate Sulaimon M. Brown with a job in return for Brown assailing and harassing former Mayor Adrian Fenty on the campaign trail. In addition, two Gray campaign aides and an associate and close personal friend face jail time after pleading guilty to charges including running a shadow campaign, violating District and federal campaign finance laws, engaging in fraud, giving false statements and obstructing justice.
Earlier this year Jeanne Clarke Harris, 75, admitted in federal court to overseeing the disbursement of $653,800 to fund the shadow campaign and that she enlisted relatives, friends and employees as "straw donors" to direct an additional $38,000 into the Gray campaign. The money is believed to have come from powerful political donor Jeffrey Thompson, who himself is being investigated by federal authorities.
Not long after Harris appeared in court to answer for her actions, D.C. Council members Muriel Bowser [D-Ward 4], David Catania [I-At Large] and Mary Cheh [D-Ward 3], issued public statements demanding that Gray step down. Gray has steadfastly refused to comply.
Gray, 69, insists that he has done nothing wrong, saying he's unaware of any wrongdoing committed by those who worked for and with him. His weekly schedule remains chock full of groundbreakings, proclamations, visits and an assortment of activities, an indication, administration officials say, that it's business as usual.
The mayor isn't alone. The council has operated under an ethical cloud. Two members were forced to resign, one for stealing $353,000 to buy lavish baubles, the other after pleading guilty to felony bank fraud and misdemeanor campaign violations.
Some of their colleagues are under investigation and public confidence has petered away as each new scandal or instance of questionable behavior, poor judgment or shaky ethics rocks the council.
Gray instructed the city's attorney general and his staff to develop the nuts and bolts of the proposed legislation. Attorney General Irvin Nathan said that since this past spring, he and his staff had been working on developing what Gray (D), requested: A bold, comprehensive and systematic proposal that would help to restore the public's confidence in our electoral system and take out the impression, the appearance of corruption between campaign financing and candidates, elected officials and government actions."
Nathan said his staff consulted with former council members, campaign managers, citizens groups, academics and professors and he added that he instructed his career prosecutors and lawyers, to look at what has happened in different jurisdictions.
"To his credit, the mayor has agreed with us and accepted our proposals and has made them his own," Nathan said. "The key proposal is the pay-for-play. The desire, I think, is to eliminate the appearance of pay-to-play, to have complete prohibitions on pay-to-play."
"No one who holds and seeks a government contract in excess of $250,000 – or the larger contracts – can contribute to a candidate or official who may have any role in the governmental contract process from the time the contract is initiated until one year after work on the contract is performed. Directors, officers and contributing shareholders would be banned."
Other provisions include requiring organizations supporting or opposing any candidate, initiative, referendum or recall to identify the sources and amounts of any contributions they receive and any expenditures they make. Any contributions by a corporate entity would be attributed to the controlling shareholder and any affiliates of the entity so that maximum contribution limits cannot be evaded. The bill would also prohibit lobbyists from bundling contributions; make money orders subject to the same limitations as cash contributions; and candidates would be more accountable for what their political committees do.
Gray spokesperson Doxie McCoy said Gray had full confidence in Nathan and what he would produce and as the legislative proposal is considered by the council, he hopes for a positive response.
"The mayor hopes to work together with the council to get the best legislation for the good of the city," she said.
There was a two-week period set aside for public comment following the press conference where Gray and Nathan announced development of the campaign reform legislation after which it was sent to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson who will introduce it to the council on the mayor's behalf. Staffers from the Office of Policy and Legislative Affairs will have conversations with council members to find common ground and work on passage of the legislation.
Gray, McCoy, said, is hopeful of passage.
Wells is not so sure but points out that the public needs to be assured that the council is serious about putting solid ethical and related standards in place. If that happens, he said, the political landscape in the city would look markedly different.
"I think this would go a long way to leveling the playing field and promote equality, but I don't see the votes on the council to support real campaign reform."