Skip to content

Testimony on ethics before Council committee

November 7, 2011

Testimony of Bryan Weaver
Council of the District of Columbia
Government Operations Committee
Muriel Bowser, chairwoman
Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Councilmember Bowser and members of the Government Operations Committee, thank you for this opportunity to speak today. My name is Bryan Weaver.

Having run two grassroots political campaigns within a year, I have a unique, up-close and personal view of how our city’s ethics rules work and more often…how they don’t.

In recent years and months we’ve heard many people, from local media to political pundits to average citizens talk about the government of the District of Columbia facing an ethics “crisis.”

Unfortunately it’s worse than that. Lack of ethics rules and weak penalties for violations are a cancer eating at the heart of the District of Columbia.

And like cancer, we need to do all that we can to prevent ethics violations from happening in the first place with straightforward laws and regulations; and if they do happen, just like cancer, we need to aggressively go after the problem with all available resources.

Some of the cure for the ethics cancer is already on the books and some of it needs to introduced as new laws, but one thing is clear: One of you, just one member of the Council of the District of Columbia needs to stand up and publicly say “enough” and not only introduce tough rules and regulations, but to practice what they preach and stop taking bundled donations from corporations, to stop accepting event tickets, stop parking with impunity, stop working a secondary job. Stop.

You must stop in order to start moving forward to an ethical, respected Council.

Drastically and radically it is time to save D.C.  The time has come to cut the cancer out.

Former Councilmember Sekou Biddle would often say on the campaign trail that we don’t need more ethics laws, we need to start electing ethical people.

And Councilmember Bowser, you are on the record subscribing to a notion popular among this body that says ethics reform entails enforcing laws currently on the books.

And in an ideal world I agree with both your and Mr. Biddle’s views.  And there are some truths to those notions — but in this climate it is more an avoidance strategy than anything resembling ethics reform.

The culture of this building is built on laws that are paper tigers: grand, powerful — full of sound and fury; signifying nothing.

Look at District law (§ 1-1131.02) that limits the amount that Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs) can give to candidates.  Each one of the members of this committee is in violation of this code. But because of a complete lack of Sunlight, no citizen has access to the make up of the LLC — as is required by the law — and therefore it is next to impossible to present a case to the Office of Campaign Finance (OCF). And if the OCF should happen to receive a complaint against a campaign, the office rarely chooses to enforce this provision.

Everybody does it so it’s okay. What’s the use of passing laws if you’re going to look the other way? Understand them, follow them. Instead this city focuses on how to game the system and exploit loopholes.

It is time for a swift and harsh radical overhaul of the city’s culture and conduct to swing the long arc of good government for DC toward the sunlight. We need clear lines of what is permissible and not another layer of bureaucracy.

It is time to turn over the Wilson Building and start shaking.

Campaign Finance
We must create a “Doing Business With” database to ensure that no company, its subsidiary LLCs or nonprofit currently doing business with the District of Columbia — government contract, government relief (tax abatement, zoning relief, etc.) — or seeking to do business with the District, be permitted to make donations to a principle political campaign or constituent services fund.

Although already prohibited under current District law (§ 1-1131.02), we must enforce and streamline the language that makes it clear that Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs) are not permitted to bundle thousands of dollars in donations to candidates and constituent services funds.

Prohibit any registered lobbyist or member of their immediate family from making donations to a principle campaign committee or constituent services fund.

Council Employment
Councilmembers should be prohibited from holding outside jobs other than to serve in voluntary roles on nonprofits that do not do business with the city (do not receive city funding in any capacity).

Council Rules
No elected official or their immediate family members shall accept gifts of travel — foreign or domestic — from any entity, whether said entity has business before the city or not.

Constituent Service Funds should be limited to $10,000 per year and the rules of distribution should be severely limited to only cover emergency situations such as assistance with funeral expenses and assistance with utility expenses. A uniform, simple application should be created to assist with reporting.

Council license plates will no longer exempt cars registered to councilmembers to be exempt from ticketing for illegal parking other than within zoned areas and at parking meters (licensed council cars would be permitted to park in any zone parking and at parking meters without paying without impunity.

Elected officials will be prohibited from receiving free and/or discounted tickets to sporting events, concerts, and the performing arts.

Independent Budget Agency
Much like the Congressional Budget Office employed by the federal government, the District must create an independent budget agency that reports back to both the Council and the Mayor on the fiscal impacts of all proposed legislation. While this agency would report to both the Council and Mayor, it would be fully independent.

Sunshine Laws
While the District government has come a long way with opens meetings and Sunshine laws, there is still an incredibly long way to go to make our government as open and transparent as possible.

In addition to creating a “Doing Business With” database — available publicly and online — the District needs to make all public filings, most especially the incorporation of LLCs available free of charge and online for public review.  Without free and easy public access to official filings — from building permits to ABC licenses to LLC incorporations — an air of unethical mystery shrouds the District.

The Office of Campaign Finance must require that all candidates electronically submit their campaign finance reports (as opposed to PDF versions, which some currently do) in order for all campaign finance reports to be easily, publicly searchable.

Anytime there is a legislative, fiduciary or rule-making conversation between elected officials or appointed officials, that conversation should be held openly.  Rule-making decisions should not be held behind closed doors with only the final ruling being made publicly available. Residents of the District have the right to know how a decision is made, not just the final result. Obvious exceptions to this would be personnel matters, but personnel matters should be the only exceptions.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: