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In Wake Of Indictment, D.C. Activists Renew Call For Campaign Finance Reforms

Various campaign finance-related bill are before the D.C. Council.
Adam Fagen (http://www.flickr.com/photos/afagen/5095526890/)
Various campaign finance-related bill are before the D.C. Council.

In the wake of this week's news that another former D.C. legislator admitted to breaking the law, good government activists are renewing their call for the city's legislature to take more aggressive action on reforming campaign finance rules.

In a statement, Public Citizen said that with this week's announcement that former D.C. Council member Michael Brown would admit to having taken $55,000 from federal agents posing as D.C. businessmen seeking preferential access to city contracts, the rest of the council would have to move on various bills that would reform how elected officials collect money and how they report it.

"It is long past time for the District to move forward on this legislation and get it in place in time for the next election—before contractors try to buy more favors, before citizens and businesses alike lose more confidence in their government, and before other public officials are tempted to cross the line into scandal," said the organization.

The Council has debated various campaign finance and ethics measures in recent months, though none have yet moved forward. A proposal introduced by Mayor Vince Gray and Attorney General Irv Nathan to limit how corporations and contractors can give money to elected officials languished last year, and still faces an uphill battle this year. Other proposals to fully ban corporate contributions to local campaigns also haven't moved forward.

Some of those bills may now get some additional attention, though. In a statement after Brown's indictment, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson indicated that there was more left to be done.

"It is my hope that those of us who have been elected to serve will see the news of Mr. Brown's plea as stimulus to redouble our efforts to improve ethics and regain the public's trust," he said.

While some Council members have said that stricter campaign finance rules are needed, others argue that existing laws are appropriate and that full disclosure is the best means to ensuring that elected officials aren't beholden to corporate interests or contractors seeking business with the city.

"The laws we have in place are the laws we should have," said Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) yesterday on The Kojo Nnamdi Show. "There aren't a lot more laws we can pass," he added, noting that Brown broke an existing law against bribery. Evans is running for mayor.

The Council passed comprehensive ethics legislation in December 2011, though campaign finance-related measures were largely left out of the bill. Last year a group of activists tried to place a measure on the November ballot that would have banned corporate contributions to campaigns, but failed to received the needed number of signatures to do so.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who is also running for mayor, has made campaign finance and ethics a central component of his run, swearing off corporate or bundled contributions. Additionally, the council has started debating a bill that would establish a public financing program for local campaigns.

Brown will plead guilty to one charge of bribery on Monday, and will be forced to pay $35,000 in restitution. He is the third D.C. legislator to break the law—former Ward 5 Council member Harry Thomas, Jr. is serving a three-year prison sentence for stealing $350,000 in city funds, while former D.C. Council Chair Kwame Brown was forced to resign last year after pleading guilty to felony bank fraud.

This week, Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) was accused of taking $6,800 in gifts from city contractors, a potential violation of existing ethics rules.

As we recently reported in our Deals for Developers series, elected officials often receive large campaign contributions from large and well-connected developers who have gotten billions in city subsidies over the last decade.

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