Embattled D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray desperately wants to convince city residents that he's serious about cleaning up city hall. But his latest campaign finance reform proposal sounds more like a last-ditch effort to regain his lost credibility while his own campaign finances remain under federal investigation.
Drafted by Attorney General Irvin Nathan earlier this year, the mayor's proposal is supposed to be a "bold, comprehensive and systematic shift" that would address "even the appearance of corruption or a pay-to-play culture." To achieve that end, donations from anyone with a city contract worth more than $250,000 would be limited, and the widespread practice of lobbyists "bundling" political donations would be prohibited. Corporations could not use affiliated entities to evade donor limits, and candidates would have to disclose all contributions in the 30 days before an election within 24 hours of receipt.
So far, so good. But the proposed reforms probably would not have prevented the $653,800 shadow campaign waged on Gray's behalf during the 2010 mayoral campaign, allegedly bankrolled by Jeffrey E. Thompson, the city's top Medicaid contractor. Two of the mayor's own campaign workers have pleaded guilty to knowingly violating existing campaign finance laws. Had the Gray administration not slipped up by hiring (and then firing) minor mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown (whose sole purpose in the election was to trash former Mayor Adrian Fenty on the campaign trail), and had U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen not subsequently launched a federal probe of the matter, the shadow campaign would probably still be in the shadows.
Just months after former D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown was forced out after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor in a federal probe of his 2008 campaign, Council Chairman Pro Tempore Michael Brown claimed he suddenly discovered "unauthorized disbursements" from his November re-election accounts. But instead of freezing them until a forensic audit is completed, as independent challenger David Grosso insists, the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance informed Brown that he can merely abstain from filing a campaign finance report like everybody else has to.
The OCF's decision is particularly egregious because Brown spent three years on supervised probation after pleading guilty in 1997 to similar federal campaign finance violations that got the mayor in such hot water. So the same city body that would be in charge of enforcing the mayor's new campaign finance laws is still finding ways not to enforce the old ones. That's hardly cause for reassurance.