Ethics Takes Center Stage at D.C. Council

James Wright | 11/2/2011, 1:15 p.m.

The D.C. Council is grappling with the issue of ethics reform as it seeks to monitor its members and prove to the general public that it is a sound, principled legislative body.

A hearing was held by the D.C. Council on ethics at the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest on Wed., Oct. 26. The hearing, led by D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who chairs the Committee on Government Operations, lasted several hours, and presented testimony from dozens of witnesses on the need for a solid ethics code for the legislative body.

"This is a low point in this body," D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large) said. "I can't remember a time in which so many members were under either investigation or a cloud of suspicion."

Two members of the legislature, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown and D.C. Council member Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5), are under investigation by federal authorities.

Seven of the 13 D.C. Council members have been probed on ethical issues by District agencies and federal authorities on a wide range of alleged activities.

Brown, 41, said that he was happy to see the hearing take place. "I was proud to see the public turn out for their testimonies at Council member Bowser's hearings," he said. "These hearings will help form an ethics bill that will come before the Council this year. I am also open to a permanent ethics committee or subcommittee on the Council."

There are 9 bills dealing with ethical behavior before the group. One which is authored by D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), "The Prohibition on Corporate and Lobbyist Giving to Public Officials Reform Amendment Act of 2011," will prohibit lobbyists from contributing to political campaigns and constituent service funds; stop council members and their staffs from receiving free or discounted legal representation from registered D.C. lobbyists; prohibit corporations with contracts and pending contracts before the D.C. Council from contributing to constituent service funds; and, significantly cut the amount elected officials can raise for constituent service funds.

D.C. Council member Vincent Orange (D-At-Large) has floated a proposal that would impose term limits on D.C. Council members.D.C. Council member Vincent Orange (D-At Large) floated a proposal that would impose term limits on D.C. Council members./Photo by Victor Holt

Bowser supports legislation that would regulate constituent service funds and limit the amount of money that can be given by individuals and private interests to transition, inaugural, and legal defense funds.

The D.C. Democratic State Committee presented a proposal at the hearing that called for changes limiting contributions to mayoral campaigns at $500, council chair $250, and ward council $100.

The Democratic State Committee recommended either banning or severely restricting constituent service funds or banning contributions from vendors and contractors who do business or seek to do business with the city.

The Democratic State Committee also endorsed the D.C. Council member position as full-time with a $10,000 outside additional income limit. It wanted to establish an ethics commission independent of the mayor and D.C. Council.

D.C. for Democracy stated what it wanted in ethics legislation. While most of it mirrors what the Democratic State Committee wants, D.C. for Democracy would eliminate constituent service funds and as of Jan. 1, 2014, D.C. Council members would be prohibited from earning outside income.

Bowser said that the time has come for an ethics board to practice oversight of D.C. elected officials. "We want to have a substantively different approach to ethics enforcement in the District of Columbia," she said.