The D.C. Council recently reprimanded Jim Graham. But it still has an ethics problem. Its labyrinthine rules handicap its ability to impose more severe penalties when there is no recommendation from the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability.
Currently, absent an ethics board referral, five council members would have to request creation of an ad hoc committee to trigger the censure process. The chairman then would select a different set of five members to serve on that committee, which would decide whether to conduct an investigation that could include a public hearing. Only after that could the legislature vote to censure or expel a member.
Those rules, initially adopted in 2011, were modeled after the congressional ethics review. While there are hundreds of federal lawmakers, the District has only 13 legislators. Nearly all of them would become involved in a censure process -- even before a vote were taken -- complicating the potential outcome.
Sometimes decisions are made "in the abstract" without practical application, Councilman Jack Evans told me, adding the rules are "not workable."
Ward 6's Tommy Wells said, "They absolutely should be changed."
The council's censure process took on greater importance after the ethics board announced it could not sanction Graham -- or any member for that matter -- for offenses that occurred before it was established in 2012. Further, with the U.S. attorney conducting multiple investigations involving District officials, some people worry that unless criminal charges are brought, it may be difficult to impose strong punishment for legislators' unethical behaviors.
Still, some council members, including Ward 4's Muriel Bowser and Chairman Pro Tempore Kenyan McDuffie, are satisfied with the rules.
"[They] should be systematized so people are accorded due process. They shouldn't be overly burdensome for the [council] or the person charged with the violation," said Bowser, who led the council's 2011 ethics reform efforts.
"What value would have been added to have another investigation of [Graham's] conduct?" asked McDuffie, who also represents Ward 5. Admitting the censure process may be "laborious," he asserted there isn't "a need to necessarily change anything."
McDuffie added, "A reprimand is a serious and strong statement."
The council passed its rules and comprehensive ethics reform in response to residents' demands for swift and significant sanctions against bad-acting elected officials and government workers. But, what the public sought, it has yet to get.
The council has created a system that's mostly smoke and no fire. Without a request from five members, there can be no ad hoc committee. Without an ad hoc committee, there can be no investigation and no censure, unless the ethics board is involved. If the offense occurred before 2012, that board is sidelined.
"All the new ethics reforms have not helped so far," said Wells.
A. Scott Bolden, managing partner of Reed Smith's Washington, D.C., office and the lawyer who represented one of the business owners adversely affected by the 2008 lottery debacle and Graham's actions, said, "The council has never demonstrated strong leadership in policing itself. And that's the biggest disappointment."
Will the council act to change that assessment?
Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.