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Barras: Getting out of the contract business

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

Banning corporate contributions to political campaigns -- as some good government proponents are attempting -- probably won't end the so-called "pay-to-play" culture in the District. After all, companies could still deploy a host of other vehicles to influence elections, including independent political action committees.

But Ward 2 D.C. Councilman Jack Evans' proposal to repeal the legislature's contract approval authority could assuage residents' concerns.

The council now approves all contracts valued at $1 million or more.

That reality has encouraged business owners and contractors to make contributions to political campaigns. Undoubtedly their hope has been that their generosity would provide them access to elected officials and, perhaps, an opportunity to sway policy and program decisions.

Their hope has not been in vain. Consequently, the public has come to believe there is a huge "For Sale" sign on the John A. Wilson Building.

"If we're going to talk ethics, this is the crux of the problem," Evans told me. "Why don't we eliminate [it] at its source? Why not get the [D.C.] council out of the contracting process?"

Unfortunately, Evans' proposal faces obstacles.

Some council members simply will not want to relinquish their ability to influence contracting -- particularly those who have talked about the need for more District-based businesses to get work from the government.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray has proposed limiting contributions individuals and companies with District government contracts or grants can make to the political committees. Some council members and business leaders could argue that action should sufficiently allay any worries about influence peddling or "pay to play."

What's more, Evans' proposal would be an amendment to the Home Rule Charter. Changes to the District's constitution ultimately must be affirmed by Congress.

Still, he's on the right path.

Truth be told, the council should never have been in the contracting business. It has always lacked specific expertise to provide an effective qualitative or quantitative evaluation of most agreements. Most often legislators end up simply rubber stamping what is presented by the executive. On far too many other occasions, the process has become politicized.

In 2008, then-Chairman Gray delayed the vote on the lottery contract that had been won through a competitive bid by W2I. He was partially upset because principals of that company were friendly with then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. He and several other legislators were close to P. Leonard Manning whose Lottery Technology Enterprises Inc was part of the losing team; Manning had generous contributed to several council members' campaigns. Ultimately, with Gray's insistence, the council rejected W2I. Then, in 2009, there was a second lottery contract; that winning team included a company whose executive reportedly was closely associated with Gray. Manning didn't win the contract. But the delay provided his business with two years of revenues he otherwise would not have received. (The U.S. Attorney currently in reviewing both rounds of lottery contracting.)

"The council's contract authority has been used mostly for the purpose of creating mischief," said Evans.

Amen.

Jonetta Rose Barras's column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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