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D.C. Ethics Reform: Lots Of Talk, But Little Agreement

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Discussion of ethics reform found resistance in the D.C. council on Wednesday.
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Discussion of ethics reform found resistance in the D.C. council on Wednesday.

With nearly half the D.C. Council facing questions for alleged ethical lapses and two members -- Council Chair Kwame Brown and Harry Thomas, Jr. -- under investigation by federal authorities, the pressure is on for District lawmakers to overhaul the city’s ethics laws.  

Council members say there’s no question the ethics laws in D.C. need to be upgraded; they've collectively brought forward 10 different ethics bills before the council. Reforming the law appears to be a top priority, but at yesterday’s marathon hearing on the proposals, it became clear there is no consensus. 

For Council member Jack Evans, reform means creating tough disclosure laws and even tougher punishments. For example, under the current law, a council member must be incarcerated to be kicked out of office. An indictment, an arrest, even a felony conviction isn’t enough to send someone packing -- they must be physically behind bars. 

So strengthening the penalties is one area that most on the council agree needs to change. And Evans believe disclosure is the solution.   “If you are found guilty of failing to disclose things on your statements you have to give up your seat on the council or resign as mayor," says Evans. "I bet that will get people’s attention.”

Others believe the council needs a new, independent body to investigate ethical controversies. “I feel very strongly we need a transformative approach -- drastic changes are called for to address both current and future issues," said Council member Muriel Bowser, who is in charge of crafting the overhaul package out of the proposals. 

Those issues, she says, fall into three categories: structural changes to the government, the closing of loopholes, and better enforcement tools.

As the day went on, council members pushed back at some of the proposed changes. For instance, a ban on outside employment drew stiff resistance from the council members who hold down second jobs. And one member, Yvette Alenander, says things are actually -- in her words --pretty good. The media have hyped up a lot of the scandals, she adds.

“People start to question things where they really don’t really need question things and I think the worst thing we can do is nitpick and micromanage everything," says Alexander. 

And while some council members cautioned against a knee-jerk reaction on ethics that could have negative consequences down the road,  most admit something must be done.

"This is a low point in this body," says Council Member David Catania. “I cant remember a time when so many members were under either investigation or cloud of suspicion." Some of those testifying before the council Wednesday agree.

“The city’s reputation has been battered," says Barbara Lange, head of D.C.’s Chamber of Commerce, adding that the cloud of scandal hanging over city hall not only hurts the city’s image -- it’s bad for business too. “D.C.’s competitiveness in the regional market is truly being tested, and the ethical lapses we have all seen have only made it tougher for business attraction and retention.”

Bowser hopes to have the legislation ready for a vote before the end of the year.

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