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Ethics Bill Passes D.C. Council

Several stricter reforms left out

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D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr., left, was one of the 13 members that unanimously voted in favor of an ethics reform bill Dec. 6. Thomas, who is the subject of an ongoing federal investigation, had little to say during the hearing. 
Patrick Madden
D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr., left, was one of the 13 members that unanimously voted in favor of an ethics reform bill Dec. 6. Thomas, who is the subject of an ongoing federal investigation, had little to say during the hearing. 

The D.C. Council has taken its first crack at passing ethics legislation, as a wide-ranging bill aimed at overhauling the city's ethics laws passed its first vote Tuesday. The measure received unanimous support from all 13 council members, including embattled Ward 5 representative Harry Thomas Jr.

Thomas dodged reporters and TV cameras as he hurried into yesterday's legislative session.

The council member's home was searched Dec. 2 by FBI and IRS agents, a sign of an intensifying federal probe into allegations he diverted $300,000 of public funds into his own pockets. Thomas, so far, has avoided making a public statement. The council, as a whole, has been criticized for remaining silent about the situation.  

Council Chair Kwame Brown held a closed-door meeting with his colleagues on Monday about Thomas. When it ended, he promised to talk with Thomas about possible sanctions or solutions. But as of yesterday's hearing, that hadn't happened. Brown said he had only spoken to Thomas to schedule a meeting. 

The Thomas situation has also ratcheted up pressure on the council to pass a tough ethics overhaul. But during yesterday's vote before the full council, members spent most of the day pushing back on specific ethics proposals. 

For example, amendments calling for bans on council members holding outside jobs, corporate bundling for campaign contributions and so-called constituent service funds were either withdrawn or roundly defeated.

Some say one of the major problems with the city's current laws is that there is no expulsion mechanism for city officials convicted of a serious crime. When one member suggested making it a super-majority vote, Council member Tommy Wells said he feared it would be used for political retribution.

"As someone who has a close-up view of that, I would not trust this body with that power," says Wells, who seemed to get a taste of such retribution earlier this year when he was stripped of the chairmanship of the council's transportation committee. 

The bill approved yesterday would set into motion the process for kicking out a mayor or council member convicted of a felony, but that will require the approval of District voters. (Currently, a mayor or council member is not disqualified from office until he or she is physically incarcerated.)

Council members admit the bill itself will likely change before the second and final vote later this month. Council member Marion Barry summed up the tension facing the body as it figures out how to police itself.  

"Elected officials have a higher standard of conduct than non-elected officials," says Barry. But, he adds, if the rules are too burdensome, no one of quality will run for office.

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