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Barras: No campaign finance report necessary

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

Let me get this straight: D.C. Councilman Michael Brown allegedly had funds stolen from his re-election campaign earlier this year. Now, the Office of Campaign Finance has told him he doesn't have to file the mandatory Aug. 10 report -- until it has completed the investigative audit Brown requested.

"I have to find out what's going on with the money," Rene Coleman, OCF's audit manager, told me. "We don't want a report where the numbers are wrong."

The law permits campaign committees to amend their reports if and when mistakes are discovered. Nothing prevents Brown from filing his contributions-expenditures statement like every other candidate and making changes later, if necessary.

When Brown announced the theft on June 22 to the media, OCF and the Metropolitan Police Department, many people were skeptical. After all, he never indicated how much had been stolen. He suggested his treasurer was the culprit -- although Hakim Sutton, who worked for Brown without incident for five years, seemed genuinely shocked by the allegations.

Police Chief Cathy Lanier told me this week, "No one has been charged yet" but "there is a very active investigation with MPD and the United States Attorney's Office." She could not provide further details during this "investigative phase."

Coleman couldn't tell me when OCF's audit would be concluded. "Call back in a month."

That's outrageous.

"What's to prevent this from happening Oct. 10?" -- the next reporting date -- asked David Grosso, an independent who is challenging Brown in the November general election.

OCF's decision not to enforce the law has disadvantaged everyone -- except Brown. Neither his opponents nor voters will have a clear and complete financial picture of his campaign's activities in these final months of the election season.

Grosso has urged OCF Director Cecily Collier-Montgomery to rescind the decision, asserting that it "undermines the transparency and accountability" voters expect.

In fairness, Brown released last week a list of people and companies that provided a total of $30,000 in contributions to his campaign since June 10. He said he "thought it was important for citizens to know" where the money is coming from.

But he failed to indicate how any money has been spent or how much cash the campaign has on hand. Surely the bank could accurately report that latter detail.

"Keep in mind, the way the law is, I didn't have to do anything," Brown told me.

That's unfortunate. The D.C. Council should close that gaping hole as soon as it returns from recess.

This isn't about paperwork. Campaign finance reform has been become a major issue in the District, after two separate federal investigations revealed illegal activities had occurred in former Councilman Kwame Brown's 2008 election committee and Vincent Gray's 2010 mayoral campaign. Those probes were triggered by complaints from Vincent Orange and Sulaimon Brown -- both former candidates for office.

District residents shouldn't be expected to enforce the city's campaign laws. That is OCF's job. It should more aggressively fulfill its responsibilities instead of using flimsy excuses and delaying tactics to protect favored politicians.

Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com

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

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