The D.C. Council, which has been dogged by allegations of corruption for months, has voted to exempt its employees who handle sensitive matters from background investigations of their criminal and credit histories.
Earlier this year, the council passed legislation that mandated new city employees "whose primary duties are of a policy determining, confidential or policy advocacy character" go through criminal background checks similar to those required of people who care for children, along with credit checks.
But those requirements, formulated in part to respond to criticism of the city's lax hiring standards, could soon vanish.
Under language Council Chairman Kwame Brown inserted into the 2013 budget, council staff members would be exempted from the mandate, which became law in March. The move could put the council at odds with Mayor Vincent Gray, who in 2011 ordered more thorough screenings of his top aides after reports surfaced that several appointees had criminal pasts.
Gray, a former council chairman, said Wednesday he has no plans to seek a similar exemption for executive branch employees. "I think background checks are always a good practice," Gray said.
David Zvenyach, the legislative body's general counsel, said Brown's proposal was designed to fix a previous oversight and that the chairman was a supporter of clean governance.
"Chairman Brown remains committed to ensuring that the council's employment practices promote fair and lawful policies," said Zvenyach, who added that although federal regulators have cautioned that pre-employment investigations could lead to discrimination claims, he was working with Brown to develop a new background check policy for council staff.
Thomas Martin, a former federal agent who once worked in Washington and the president of Newport Beach, Calif.-based Martin Investigative Services, said the proposed changes -- even if temporary -- are surprising.
"I would be totally perplexed and puzzled why any government agency would take this tack," Martin said. "I just think it's bizarre."
One John A. Wilson Building official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss personnel practices, said some council aides had complained the checks were too burdensome.
"They're administratively onerous, time-consuming [and] expensive," the official said. "Does your employer need to know that you missed a credit card payment three years ago if you are hired to answer the phones?"
The move comes as District leaders, including Brown, remain under investigation and less than two weeks after a federal judge ordered a onetime councilman to prison for stealing city money.
But allegations of corruption have not been limited to elected leaders. On repeated occasions, lower-level employees have been ensnared in scandals, too.
Most recently, six unidentified council aides were implicated in a scheme to defraud the city by collecting unemployment benefits while on the District's payroll. Also, other city employees have pleaded guilty to criminal charges, including bribery and embezzlement, in the past decade.
That, Martin said, should invite even more scrutiny.
"If you look at the history of the District -- and it doesn't seem that they have a pristine track record -- I think that we absolutely, 100 percent need to do these searches since we continue to hire knuckleheads," Martin said.