We have all been dismayed by the dark cloud of scandal over the John A. Wilson building. Some may want to believe that this cloud rolled in just this past year with the allegations of nepotism, illegal use of campaign funds, misuse of city vehicles and public grant funds, etc. Such scandals make for a perfect storm that has ripped away whatever was left of any naïve faith that our laws are properly enforced. In fact, however, the District—just like the 50 states and the federal government—is threatened by something far more insidious: the pay-to-play culture of crony capitalism that allows the privileged few and the special interests to exert far more influence than their limited numbers would allow in a truly democratic system.
We must address both types of threats referred to above. First, we must prevent future scandals from engulfing the Wilson building by enforcing the laws already on the books. The Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) must be adequately staffed to audit campaign records and to initiate its own investigations. Its current staff of four auditors is clearly not sufficient. More importantly, enforcement of ethics statutes, which are currently scattered across multiple agencies, must be consolidated into a unified Ethics Code, as Ken McGhie of the DC Board of Elections & Ethics (BOEE) eloquently urged at the hearing on October 26. This unified and expanded Ethics Code would then be enforced by an independent Ethics Board consisting of members nominated by the Mayor, Council Chair, and the Attorney General, as well as four members from outside of government nominated by labor, business and community organizations. All would be subject to confirmation by the DC Council.
Only an independent Ethics Board that is adequately staffed and funded would have the authority for broad oversight, could carry out the training of government personnel, including our elected officials, and could enforce ethical behavior by all personnel. Establishing and funding such a body will be an important test of the Council’s seriousness about genuine ethics reform.
As important as it is, the enforcement of existing laws alone will not solve the problem. The pay-to-play culture of crony capitalism is deeply engrained throughout our political system through the power of money. To curb its influence in our local government and politics, our proposals include the following:
Ban political contributions by lobbyists and entities that do business with the District.
Ban the bundling of campaign contributions, and reduce contribution limits for Mayoral and Council Chair Campaigns to $1,000.
Attribute contributions of corporate affiliates and subsidiaries to the parent corporation for purposes of campaign contribution limits.
Eliminate private donations, using public financing only, for Transition Committees, and limit donations for Inaugural activities to $100 per individual or entity.
Require reporting to OCF of Independent Expenditures related to political campaigns.
Eliminate Constituent Services Funds.
Ban free or discounted legal services for elected officials; ban private donations for official travel (use public financing only); and ban public officials from receiving free or discounted prices not available to the general public for entertainment, sports events, etc.
Require full reporting to OCF of meetings between lobbyists and councilmembers.
Closely related to the pay-for-play culture is the potential abuse of power by elected officials in cases where there is a clear conflict of interest. To address this problem, we propose the following:
Require Councilmembers to state on the record before consideration of legislation whether they have a conflict of interest and, if so, require that they recuse themselves.
Ban outside employment for councilmembers beginning January, 2014.
Finally, there must be accountability for those who have engaged in corrupt practices. Too often, only public officials pay the price for corruption, while the private parties—without whom such corruption would not exist—escape punishment. To make sure there is accountability on the part of these private parties, we propose the following:
Prohibit organizations that have been convicted of fraud from doing business with the District government for five years.
Prohibit contractors or individuals who have misrepresented information in the contract awards process from doing business with the District government for five years.
We believe that a piecemeal approach to ethics reform will not work, and that it will not provide the necessary reassurance to District residents that serious reforms are being adopted. The above proposals will, in our view, go a long way towards clearing that cloud over the Wilson building and restoring public trust in our local government.