The D.C. Council ethics bill proposed by Chairman Kwame Brown (D-At-Large) and Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) was criticized by D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan and other witnesses at a hearing June 13.

Nathan called {The Comprehensive Ethics Reform Act of 2011} a “first step,” but said if the legislation was enacted as drafted, the bill would only muddle existing ethics laws and create ineffective rules.

The existing bill would create a “competing bureaucratic upstart,” he told council members.

The attorney general also strongly opposed the proposal of a new Office of Government Accountability and said the city did not need a “new bureaucracy.” Under the bill, the OGA director would be selected by the mayor, with the consent of the council, from a list of individuals recommended by the Board of Elections and Ethics.

Findings from the OGA director could be appealed to the Board, and its decision could be appealed in court. But Nathan called the process of appellate review “problematic,” as the ability to appeal would delay time for corrective action. Nathan said the Court of Appeals is unlikely to hear the appeal because the challenge would be an “opinion.”

Robert Wechsler, the director of research for City Ethics, an ethics advocacy group, had the same concern as Nathan, prior to the hearing.

“These appeals would be of a report that contains nothing but findings and recommendations (like appealing a grand jury report),” Wechsler stated in his column on cityethics.org. “It could be years before the ‘appropriate authority’ gets to consider the report and actually make a decision.

“This doesn’t sound like accountability to me.”

Nathan said that subpoena powers should be restored in the Office of Attorney General’s as it was limited last year. “Clarify the power of the executive, specifically our office,” he said.

Other witnesses included Dorothy Brizill, a longtime advocate and executive director of D.C. Watch, who said that most District residents want those involved with ethics reform to be independent of officials, such as the mayor.

“Most people want an ethics advisory committee that has some distance from our elected officials,” Brizill said. She added that there “must be real immediate consequences for violations.”

Cheh said she did not think the council would be voting on the proposed legislation before recess.

 

Erica Butler

AFRO Staff Writer