D.C. Council Chair Kwame Brown has sponsored a bill that would sanction District employees for ethic violations, require disclosure of clients and establish an ethics advisory board – a collective of government high-ranking government officials. But one expert said the bill muddles current ethics laws.

The Comprehensive Ethics Reform Act of 2011, which was introduced May 17 by Brown and Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), has been criticized by Robert Wechsler, director of research for the non-profit organization City Ethics, a group that advises local governments on their ethics program.

Under the legislation, an Office of Government Accountability would be created within the Board of Elections and Ethics (BOEE), and an Ethics Advisory Council Committee would be convened to investigate conflicts of interests. The OGA director would be selected by the mayor, with the consent of the council, from a list of people recommended by the Board of Elections.

But Wechsler said the BOEE has nothing to do with government ethics and the process of endless appeals would not give OGA the power the bill states it will have. “It doesn’t seem as though someone has authority. It can’t actually enforce what it’s supposed to,” he said.

Under the bill, findings from the OGA director could be appealed to the Board, and its decision could be appealed in court. “These appeals would be of a report that contains nothing but findings and recommendations (like appealing a grand jury report),” the former bankruptcy lawyer 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.”

The proposed five-person advisory council would be chaired by the mayor and his two designees – who cannot be employed by D.C. and at least one has to be a D.C. attorney. And it would also include the council chair and his/her designee, who will serve as a lawyer. Those appointed must have a background in ethics, according to the bill.

The proposed ethics committee lacks independence, Wechsler said. He added that usually governments have a commission or ethics board nominated by residents. “New York City probably has the best conflicts of interest board – they don’t do their own investigations; their investigation is done by a separate agency.”

Karen Sibert, the deputy chief of staff for Kwame Brown, said that if members of the committee are involved in unethical situations, then they may be “subject to the law” and lawyers will be subject to the “standards of the legal bar association.”
But Wechsler still called the committee “wasteful.”

“Siince the mayor and the council can recommend changes any time they want, their presence and effective control of this particular committee make it seem superfluous,” he stated.

Acting attorneys on the council must disclose their clients, unless there is a legal privilege in place that would prevent them from doing so, Sibert explained.

Council member David Catania (I-At-Large) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) are the council’s practicing lawyers. Catania came under scrutiny for working with a firm, which has ties with a city contractor, M.C. Dean, Inc.

But Brendan Williams-Kief, the spokesman for Catania, said the politician has nothing to hide and supports ethics reform. “Councilmember Catania has always been open about his secondary employment as in-house counsel for OpenBand, a Northern Virginia technology company,” Williams-Kief stated in an e-mail. “ takes very seriously the obligation of elected officials to disclose the companies with which they do business and believes strongly that District residents have a right to know such information.”

Disclosure of clients by acting attorneys that hold public offices is not uncommon, Wechsler said. “Lawyers say I can’t disclose, and you go to a lawyer’s website and see their list of clients,” he said. “Lawyers exaggerate.”

Overall, Wechsler said that the council should start ethics reform from scratch instead of patching extra legislation to existing laws. “The District’s government needs to take a deep breath and let go. The only way it will have a comprehensive, effective ethics program is not by adding pieces to the puzzle of District ethics, but by completely remaking the program and the ethics laws so that they aren’t a puzzle at all,” he stated in his column. “And the only way the ethics program will be effective is if it appears to the public, and actually is, independent of the city’s officials, and has teeth.”

 

Erica Butler

AFRO Staff Writer