The D.C. Council tentatively approved an ethics reform bill Tuesday that would make it easier for the government to punish corrupt elected officials, but members plan to refine the proposal amid disagreements over some of its provisions.
In the first of two votes expected this month, the council unanimously agreed to establish an ethics panel, bar felons from serving on the council or as mayor and, for the first time, empower the D.C. attorney general to prosecute elected officials accused of ethical misconduct.
The bill, which follows a months-long effort to rewrite city ethics laws, also bolsters financial disclosure and conflict-of-interest laws and slashes by 50 percent what council members can raise for constituent service funds.
“We have been very serious about ethics reform, and I think the bill reflects that,” said Muriel D. Bowser (D-Ward 4), head of the Government Operations Committee.
With the council rushing to complete several pieces of legislation before the end of the year, it also approved tougher employment requirements for city contractors, agreed to name a new $15 million library after late activist and school board member William O. Lockridge, and voted to reduce the number of mayoral appointees.
But the ethics debate dominated the discussion, prompting several unusually personal exchanges among members struggling to respond to a string of controversies involving elected officials.
On Friday, the FBI and IRS raided the home of council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) after allegations by D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan that Thomas diverted $300,000 in city money for his personal use.
Although a majority of his colleagues have suggested that he take a paid leave of absence until the federal investigation is over, Thomas attended Tuesday’s meeting.
A throng of reporters and cameramen greeted him when he walked into the chamber. “I can’t have any comment,” Thomas told them.
Thomas co-sponsored several pieces of legislation but made no comments during the ethics debate, although he supported the bill.
The ethics measure, a priority of D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), will create a three-member Board of Ethics and Government Accountability to police elected officials’ conduct. If the board determines there is a violation, it could issue fines of as much as $5,000 an instance. The city’s attorney general would also be able to prosecute local political-corruption cases. Those convicted could face up to a year in prison or a $25,000 fine.
But council members are divided on several aspects of the legislation. During the next two weeks, they are expected to meet behind closed doors to fashion a final version of the measure.
On Tuesday, Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) unsuccessfully tried to persuade his colleagues to ban the bundling of campaign contributions and prohibit city contractors from contributing to political campaigns.
“I can think of no greater obvious conflict of interest than where you approve their contract and then say, ‘I think it’s time to give to my campaign,’ ” Wells said.
His amendment was rejected on a voice vote.
Later, Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-At Large) attempted to win passage of an amendment to prohibit members from holding second jobs.
During the debate, Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) questioned whether it was appropriate for David A. Catania (I-At Large) to earn $240,000 working for a company that has a major contract with the city.
“We need to have some definite proposals before us now for recusal and disclosure,” Graham said. “When members work for companies with major D.C. contracts, questions are raised.”
In August, Catania became vice president for corporate strategy for M.C. Dean, which has a contract for city streetlights. After the meeting, Catania accused Graham of trying to “impugn his integrity” by disclosing the potential conflict.
“I think Mr. Graham, himself, is smarting from his own ethics issues and is looking to splash toward others in an attempt to direct away attention,” said Catania, an indirect reference to Graham’s former chief of staff, Ted G. Loza. Loza was charged with accepting bribes to influence legislation related to the taxi industry, but later pleaded guilty to felony charges of accepting payments, though his plea did not include an admission of taking any action to benefit taxi industries.
Council members are also divided over whether they should try to change the city charter to allow for impeachment. Orange hopes to make it part of the final bill, but Wells raised doubts about whether his colleagues would use the authority for “political retribution.”
“I will not trust this body with that power,” Wells said.
In other business Tuesday, the council unanimously approved a rewrite of a law requiring contractors to hire a certain percentage of city residents. Under the bill, which now goes to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), 51 percent of new hires on projects worth $300,000 to $5 million will have to be District residents. An even higher percentage would be required for projects of more than $5 million.
The bill also includes new enforcement procedures allowing the District to recoup up to 5 percent of its money if contractors fail to meet the hiring requirements in a contract.
“This is the largest jobs bill in city history,” said Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), who with Thomas and the council chairman sponsored the legislation.