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Testimony on ethics 11.30

December 19, 2011

Testimony of Bryan Weaver

Council of the District of Columbia

Government Operations Committee

Muriel Bowser, chairwoman

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

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

To quote that great American statesman Yogi Berra, this is like déjà vu all over again. A little over a month ago I sat before this same committee testifying about ethics — or lack thereof, in the District.

And now, here we are once again only this time we have an actual bill to discuss. Unfortunately though, because this bill fails to address so many of the fundamental ethical problems facing this council, much of the conversation will be the same.

With years of ethics lapses and outright corruption charges aimed at members of the Council of the District of Columbia the distrust of D.C. residents toward their elected government is coming home to roost at the John A. Wilson building.

The Council is now offering concessions in the hope of easing the unprecedented anger at this crisis in the form of a weak ethics law that punts the ball down field to another layer of district bureaucracy — albeit a needed bureaucracy. The D.C. Council legislation would establish an ethics panel, slash how much money council members can raise to help “constituents” and require stricter reporting of outside income and potential conflicts.

However, most good government advocates seem unwilling, to give up their demand for a radical overhaul of the District’s ethics and campaign laws. The Council is trying to do just enough to buy more time, but that won’t satisfy the masses.

The Council’s legislation seeks to respond narrowly to several questions that have been raised this year concerning the alleged actions of some city leaders and government staffers.

Council members, would be required to file an annual affidavit in which they will have to certify they paid all of their taxes and had not “been offered or accepted any bribes” or engaged in any “pay to play schemes” — all things that are obvious to any member to the general public, but somehow has to be reiterated to our government representatives.

Most important though, this legislation fails enact any real protections against a “pay-to-play” politics or the corrupting influence of money on local government from certain individuals and entities doing or seeking business with the city to make contributions to candidates for office as well as to transition and inaugural entities.

District law (§ 1-1131.02) allows corporate contributions up to $500 for ward races, $1,000 for at-large and $2,000 for mayor per year. But this limit is a political “Three-card Monte”. Each subsidiary Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) is able to make contributions on its own up to the limit. Consequently, businesses with subsidiary LLCs can and do multiply their influence by bundling gifts.

In preparation for this testimony, I set out to prove my point using you, Councilmember Bowser — one of the few members of this body not to suffer from the taint of scandal — as an example of how even the most (pious, clean, ethical) councilmember can turn a blind eye to the laws of the District

What I discovered was even more distressing.

So far this campaign cycle you have taken $1500 from Capital Construction Enterprises located at 1330 Locust Road, NW [$500 6/10/2011, $500 7/26/2011 and $500 10/6/2011].

Working under the assumption that Capital Construction was an LLC because of the multiple donations, I headed to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to determine the make-up of the company.

I knew nothing whatsoever about Capital Construction other than they and partner companies with the same address have made thousands in donations to many candidates throughout the District for years.

What I discovered is that Capital Construction is not an LLC — which if it had three partners, would have, within the law, given you some legal wiggle room — but a sole proprietorship meaning that your campaign is in violation of the existing law — twice.

What’s even more alarming? Capital’s business license was revoked by the District in June 2011.

In addition, another company registered at this address gave Councilmember Jim Graham $2100 in 2010. That company, Millenium [sic] had its license to do business in the District revoked in 2005.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If I attempted to ascertain the make-up of each corporation making donations to a District candidate, I would have to spend more than $60,000 [it costs more than $25 to view each page of organizations and businesses organized in the District of Columbia] to get the information from DCRA.

That’s an incredibly steep price to pay for “public information”.

And unless I file a complaint with the Office of Campaign Finance, this will go nowhere beyond this room.

All this contributes to the culture of “pay to play.” And because it is within the law, our leaders in D.C. think it’s just how you do business. That it is ok.  It is not.  In fact, this moral lethargy leads to perceptions of impropriety, if not outright corruption.

Big money diminishes accountability, transparency and inclusiveness in our government.  It determines who runs for office and where those candidates stand on the issues.

Money should not determine how our elected officials spend their time in the Wilson Building.  Issues facing the city should do that.  Problems facing the residents should come first.

Many of our council members may have their hearts in the right place, but how they fund their campaigns raises serious questions about where their priorities may be.

And you too Council member Bowser, I believe your heart was in the right place with this legislation, unfortunately the ethical crises facing elected officials in the District of Columbia isn’t about heart. It’s about the law.

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.

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