Tougher Ethics Standards Tentatively Clear D.C. Council

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The D.C. Council tentatively approved an ethics reform bill Dec. 6 that would bring tougher sanctions against corrupt elected officials, but several amendments likely will be submitted before final passage of the bill.

In addition to establishing an ethics panel, the bill would bar felons from serving as mayor or council members, allow the city’s attorney general to prosecute elected officials accused of violating ethics law, strengthen disclosure and conflict of interest laws and set penalties for ethics violations.

D.C. Councilmember Vincent B. Orange (D-at Large), announced Dec. 7 that he would offer an amendment to expand the size of the ethics board, make the chairmanship a full-time position and add a dozen auditors and analysts to the staff.

The ethics board, as Orange envisions it, would assume the powers set forth in legislation proposed by Councilmember Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), chair of the Government Operations Committee.

According to a summary of the bill that passed the first round of voting Dec, 6, the ethics board “is the new ethics sheriff for the District. It will receive and investigate complaints and where appropriate, penalize violations of the new code of conduct.”
Penalties for violations would include:

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• A maximum penalty of $5,000 per violation or three times the improper benefit.
• First-time criminal penalties of $25,000 or a year in prison. The board would study which ethics violations should be considered criminal and recommend adoption into law by the council.
• Censure by the board for violations that substantially threaten the public trust followed by consideration, within 72 hours of their ruling, whether to remove chairmanship or other powers.

The bill also would allow for a recall process for an official whose violation substantially threatens public trust and lowers to 5 percent the number of signatures needed to get a recall vote on ballot for an at-large elected official. The legislation also would disqualify a councilmember or mayor from continuing to hold office if convicted of a felony.

“We have been very serious about ethics reform, and I think the bill reflects that,” Bowser told The Washington Post.

In a statement, Orange said he was concerned the legislation did not go far enough.

“The structural changes I proposed which are deferred for a vote, in two-weeks, however, do not alleviate my concerns on whether the Council has the will to enact comprehensive ethics reform,” Orange said.

Other issues considered during the debate included whether council members, who are considered part-time, should hold outside employment, whether the bundling of campaign contributions should be banned and whether city contractors should be barred from contributing to political campaigns.

The bill, which has been in development for several months, comes on the heels of a raid by the FBI and IRS Dec. 2 on the home of Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) following allegations that he diverted $300,000 in city funds for his own use.