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Barras: Mayor Gray: Campaign finance reformer?

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

Mayor Vincent C. Gray, at the center of the most intense ethics and campaign finance crisis in the city's history as a quasi-independent municipality, decided this week to cast himself as reform king. It's a rabbit-hole world in the District of Columbia.

He and his 2010 campaign committee are under federal investigation. The city's Office of Campaign Finance has concluded its audit but has refused to release the findings.

Gray asserted his campaign finance reform proposal would "bring accountability and transparency" and would help "avoid even the appearance of corruption in the District's political leadership."

Who is the pack of cards?

Gray's reform plan contains loopholes and a stunning embrace of an arrangement comparable to what began his troubles: It would allow funds to be transferred between candidates "so long as the aggregate does not exceed $300" in one year. Those exchanges would not be considered a contribution or an expenditure, escaping mandatory reporting.

During the 2010 primary, Gray's campaign paid cash to Sulaimon Brown, a minor mayoral candidate, to trash the incumbent. An ongoing federal investigation of that arrangement has resulted in two Gray campaign lieutenants acknowledging payments were made. They subsequently pleaded guilty to related federal felonies.

Apparently, the mayor and Attorney General Irvin Nathan want to sanction such exchanges, essentially legalizing the 2010 shenanigans.

Call that the "Sulaimon Clause."

But the plan would require contributions received within the 30 days of an election be reported electronically within 24 hours. Unfortunately, the proposal would give OCF the discretion to provide an exception for "actual hardship."

The OCF already bends and waives rules far too often.

It recently allowed at-large D.C. Councilman Michael Brown to skip filing his Aug. 10 report because money allegedly was stolen from his campaign. Renee Coleman, OCF's audit manager, said Brown would not have to submit that documentation -- or any report, for that matter -- until she has completed her investigation of the theft.

There are other escape hatches: The nonprofit Public Citizen declared the proposal's anti-pay-to-play component "among the strongest in the nation." Sure, it would prohibit an individual or company seeking or a holding contract/grant worth $250,000 or more from "contributing to any elected public official or candidate who could be involved in the approval process for [that] contract or grant."

But contractors also would have "an opportunity to cure [any] violation prior to commencement of enforcement action." Call that the "Jeffrey E. Thompson Clause."

His company, D.C. Chartered Health Plan, had an annual government contract valued at $300 million while he was bankrolling Gray's 2010 mayoral campaign. Thompson allegedly provided legal and illegal contributions totaling more than $653,000.

Soon after Gray's win, the government increased the reimbursement rate paid to Thompson's company, reportedly helping it rake in an additional $12 million. The mayor denied any connection between that decision and Thompson's political contributions.

Gray said his reform proposal would "help safeguard the trust residents place in our leaders when they elect us."

He's joking, right?

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

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