D.C. ethics panel seeks greater authority, stricter rules

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Local,DC,Alan Blinder,Jim Graham,Tommy Wells,Muriel Bowser

Less than a year into its work and already realizing the limits of its power, the District's ethics board is asking lawmakers to broaden its authority, criminalize certain conduct for the first time and strengthen laws intended to prevent conflicts of interest.

Government Ethics Director Darrin Sobin, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, said this week that the panel's request for enhanced powers was "intended to send a message that ethics reform is active and ongoing."

The board's 16 recommendations to District lawmakers emphasized the need for tougher rules to avoid "indirect action that creates an appearance of nepotism-based conflict of interest" and suggested "romantic and cohabitant relationships" be included in anti-nepotism guidelines.

The board said such rules would be similar to those implemented in jurisdictions in California and New York.

The three-member panel is also asking lawmakers to criminalize conflict-of-interest violations, widening the number of potential prosecutions for breaking ethics laws.

"At least some of the violations of ethics statutes under [the ethics board's] jurisdiction should be subject to criminal penalties because they involve conduct that substantially threatens the public's trust," the board said. "Government employees who engage in the prohibited conduct essentially make themselves available to the highest bidder and abdicate their responsibility to act for the public good."

The board also asked for the power to develop a code of conduct that would apply to all city employees and suggested that it receive the authority to craft rules tied to District government contracts.

And months after it strongly condemned the conduct of Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham, the board is seeking the power to recommend explusion of D.C. lawmakers.

Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells, who is considering a mayoral bid, said he was receptive to any proposal to enhance the city's ethics code.

"The ethics law was weak, and so far it has not served much of a purpose," Wells said. "I believe it's an opportunity to put some teeth in the ethics law."

Sobin said he expected lawmakers would consider changes to the ethics system, even though the council passed the law creating his job less than two years ago, because the same measure required the board to submit recommendations.

"It really was a huge undertaking that the council tried to do, and they had the foresight to know that there were going to be so many things that were going to play out, they left it open-ended and required this report," Sobin said. "The appetite is certainly there because ethics reform is an unfinished work."

Ward 4 Councilwoman Muriel Bowser, who authored the existing law, did not respond to a request for comment.

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com

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