The D.C. Council approved the most comprehensive overhaul of city ethics laws in a generation Tuesday, toughening disclosure rules and creating new penalties for misconduct, including for the first time giving members the power to impeach a colleague.
The legislation, approved by a 12 to 1 vote, caps a six-month effort by the council to respond to a series of ethical controversies and federal investigations that have shaken public confidence in city government.
Council members agreed to establish a three-member ethics panel, bar felons from serving on the council or as mayor and, also for the first time, empower the D.C. attorney general to prosecute elected officials accused of ethical misconduct. The measure goes to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who is expected to sign it.
During several hours of sometimes acrimonious debate, members argued over whether to avoid and dilute proposed ethics rules. The council voted down regulations that would have barred them from holding second jobs and that would have required them to disclose when city contractors donate to their campaigns.
Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), who had promised that the council would pass the regulations by year’s end, said the revised measure proves the body is committed to upholding the public’s trust.
“It’s been a hard, long road this year, but . . . we delivered for the residents,” Brown said.
With half of the council up for reelection next year, Brown and his colleagues hope that their actions Tuesday will help them shift from the ethical problems and criminal probes that have dangled over city government this year.
This month, the FBI and IRS raided the home of council member Harry Thomas Jr. after allegations by D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan that the Ward 5 Democrat diverted $300,000 in city money for his personal use.
The U.S. attorney’s office is also investigating whether money was properly accounted for in Brown’s 2008 reelection campaign. Allegations about Gray’s campaign and his administration’s hiring practices are also under federal investigation. Thomas, Brown and Gray have denied wrongdoing.
The council’s refusal to bar second jobs and ban donations from lobbyists and city contractors upset some activists looking ahead to the 2012 elections.
“This meager attempt to end the council’s continuing ethics scandals falls tragically short,” said David Grosso, an independent at-large council candidate who lives in Brookland.
But some council members said they felt insulted by suggestions that they needed more oversight, noting that there are only a few examples of alleged graft involving elected officials.
“There has not been a history of corruption and pay to play in this government at all,” said council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who was censured last year after an investigation of a personal services contract from his office and whose tax problems have led the IRS to file a lien against a home he owns in Southeast Washington. “This bill is being driven by the media. Power has been accrued by the media, not the people.”
The legislation bolsters financial disclosure guidelines and conflict-of-interest laws, including disclosing all outside income, and slashes by 50 percent what council members can raise for constituent service funds.
It also sets new restrictions on donations to campaign transition committees — $2,000 limits for mayor and $1,000 for council chairman.
But some advocates and council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who cast the lone vote against the bill, argued that the council failed to substantially tackle the role of money in D.C. politics.
This month, the council voted down an effort by Wells to ban bundling of campaign donations and prohibit city contractors from donating to council members. On Tuesday, the council rejected an amendment by Wells that would have required political candidates to disclose when they receive contributions from a contractor.
Wells said the final mark in his decision to vote against the bill came after council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) successfully pushed to undo a proposed restriction on how members spend their constituent service accounts.
When council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) drafted the bill, she included language barring members from using the funds to pay for season tickets to sporting and other cultural events. Bowser’s proposal was in response to a Washington Post story in August noting that Evans had spent $135,897 in constituent service funds for professional sports tickets over the past decade.
At the time, Evans said the expenses were permissible by law. He said he gave most of the tickets to constituents. And during Tuesday’s debate, Evans persuaded seven of his colleagues to join him in removing the proposed restriction.