Following is the testimony of Dan Wedderburn on behalf of DC for Democracy at the DC Council hearing before the Committee of the Whole chaired by Council Chair Phil Mendelson on Monday, April 15th.
Mr. Chairman, members, my name is Dan Wedderburn. I chair the Government Reform Committee of DC for Democracy. DC for Democracy (DC4D) is a leading non-aligned progressive organization in the District with over 500 members. DC4D has repeatedly testified before the Government Operations Committee pushing for major campaign and ethics reform.
Despite some reforms, the loss of public confidence in DC elected officials continues unabated. And so does corruption, an endemic pay-to-play culture, and disregard of the Council’s own Code of Conduct, especially its conflict-of-interest provisions which are routinely ignored and lack enforcement.
DC for Democracy strongly supports the proposed Contractor Pay-To-Play legislation, though we do have some concerns. This Bill is far-reaching in scope and could have a major effect on reducing the corrupting influence by those who contribute large sums to DC elected officials and candidates and to Constituent Service Funds. They have one purpose in mind: expecting large returns. This legislation could even help to level the playing field and stem DC’s ever-increasing inequality that ranks among the highest in the nation.
The Bill prohibits a person including a business or organization that makes or solicits contributions to DC elected officials and candidates, from entering into a contract or agreement with the District valued at $100,000 or more. It also prohibits the same from receiving a grant or tax abatement; from entering into an agreement for the acquisition, sale or lease of any land or building; from receiving title or any other property interest in a street or alley; and prohibits them from contributing to any Constitution Service Fund.
The Bill’s prohibitions also apply to a candidate’s political committee; to a political party; or to any entity controlled by a candidate or elected official (and immediate family members) who control or have an ownership interest of 10% or more. The Bill also requires a prospective contractor to provide a sworn statement confirming their eligibility under penalty of perjury.
Concerns & Recommendations
A major concern is a provision throughout the Bill that contributions by the prohibited entities are applicable only for an elected official and candidate “…who is or could be involved in influencing the award of a contract or grant. “ This language gives the impression they would themselves decide whether they are or could be involved or not. If so, this leaves a gaping hole in the supposed intent of the prohibitions, that is, to eliminate contractor pay-to-play in the District. DC for Democracy recommends this language be eliminated in all cases. Pay-to-pay will continue to thrive if this is not done.
The prohibitions would not apply to those who enter into a contract or agreement below $100,000. What is the basis to exclude them? DC4D recommends eliminating this exclusion.Enforcement. The legislation does not discuss this. Who would enforce its provisions? DC’s history in enacting ethics reforms has been to have weak enforcement mechanisms and the Council understaffed them so that the intent of reforms is simply ignored.
DC for Democracy recommends strong enforcement mechanisms be added to ensure robust enforcement. The Board of Ethics & Government Accountability should have this responsibility and be provided the necessary staffing.
How would this Bill affect a contractor who has an initial contract under $100,000 that is later amended and increased to over $100,000?
The prohibition regarding constituent-service funds is a definite step forward. The public has become acutely aware of the egregious abuse and misuse of these funds. Many have learned the primary purpose for these funds is to get re-elected, not to assist constituents with dire needs. One result is three councilmembers refuse to accept these funds, which come mostly from their big campaign donors. DC4D has long been on record opposing these funds altogether, and recommends they be abolished.
Pay-to-Play has become institutionalized in this city. It is a direct threat to representative government by and for the people otherwise known as Democracy. It is time to end this and to end it now.