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Ruling on Councilman Jim Graham triggers criticism of D.C. ethics board

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The opinion from the new D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability was blistering: D.C. Councilman Jim Graham had "committed one or more violations of the District of Columbia code of conduct" when he tied his vote on the city's lottery contract to a Metro development project.

But despite unanimously issuing a ruling that spent much of its 27 pages attacking Graham, the ethics board closed its investigation because of constitutional concerns that it could not punish Graham for his conduct.

It was a ruling that pleased almost no one -- even Graham.

Graham's legal team immediately blasted the ruling as "unfair" because the legislator didn't have the opportunity to refute the charges before the board.

But the ruling also distressed city leaders, some of whom worried that the panel flunked its first test.SClBWard 6 Councilman Tommy Wells said he feared the board didn't have sufficient authority.SClB"Part of their job was to help address issues of ethics, and in this particular case, the board has ended up being toothless," Wells said. "If the ethics board is now saying they are irrelevant for whatever happened before, then that is a flaw."

Mayor Vincent Gray said that a clearer ruling would have been helpful.

"One would love to see them be as definitive as they possibly can," he said. "Someone in a job like Mr. Graham's, you don't want things looming out there like that."

But others, like Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans, said they didn't think the matter damaged the fledgling board, which opened last year.

"If they wanted to punt on this, they could have," Evans said. "But they actually did a legal analysis and came to this conclusion."

And Darrin Sobin, the District's director of government ethics, said he thought the ruling strengthened the board.

"I do not think the credibility of the board has been undermined," Sobin said. "As a matter of fact, I think the opinion shows the board is willing to do everything it can do to hold public officials accountable under the law."

As lawmakers digested the board's ruling, though, they began quietly deliberating whether to reprimand Graham for his conduct.

Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh said the council could take action to appease concerns that Graham escaped punishment because of a technicality.

"I don't know that people should be disappointed, because it's not over," Cheh said.

Graham's attorneys have said they are "considering our legal options."

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com

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