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D.C. Council Rushes To Pass Ethics Reform

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Attorney General Irv Nathan warned the D.C. Council that trying to legislate away ethics concerns is not enough.
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Attorney General Irv Nathan warned the D.C. Council that trying to legislate away ethics concerns is not enough.

The D.C. Council's push to reform the city government's ethics laws is moving forward, but that didn't stop the city's attorney general from delivering some sharp words to council members at a hearing yesterday.

Attorney General Irv Nathan told the council that while he supports the proposed overhaul measure, when it comes to ethics reform, legislation is not enough.

"Not only do elected officials have to comport themselves in an exemplary fashion, but they cannot appear to tolerate questionable conduct by their peers," said Nathan. The council's reaction to the recent scandal involving council member Harry Thomas Jr. is one example, he added.

Nathan led an investigation earlier this year into allegations that Thomas diverted city funds for his own personal use. Thomas agreed to pay the city back $300,000 in June. After the settlement, a handful of council members asked for Thomas to step down, but most stayed silent.

"A number of our citizens have expressed disappointment that there so little condemnation by most elected officials of apparent violations of others," said Nathan. 

The bill before council would create an independent ethics board, tighten disclosure requirements and address other concerns, such as lobbyists, legal defense funds, and constituent service funds, all of which are elements that have led to ethics investigations into various council members. 

"The reason for this hearing, this bill, is that there is a crisis of confidence in elected leadership in the District of Columbia," says Council Member Tommy Wells. "I believe this is a good first step, but I believe its incumbent on us as a council to go further," he says. 

Wells believes the bill should ban outright constituent service funds -- the current legislation limits the amount of money allowed in those coffers but does not eliminate them. He's also called for an end to the campaign finance practice known as "bundling," which allows donors to skirt contribution limits.

But others on the council, including Michael Brown, cautioned against "over-reaching." 

"So making sure that we balance the public trust, but at the same time not let people use laws for 'political witch hunting' that can go on," said Brown. 

Council Chairman Kwame Brown has promised to pass ethics reform before the end of the year, which means the council will need to move quickly. 

But the time line has good government advocates worried. 

"Ethics reform is a collaborative process, a slow process, it might not even be a very pleasant process," Dorothy Brizill of the group DC Watch, said outside the Council chamber after yesterday's hearing. "But this rush to have a markup, a bill, and two votes on it before the end of the year concerns me greatly."

The first vote on the ethics reform bill has not yet been scheduled.

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