Reneging on campaign finance reform

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

Nearly every member of the D.C. Council over the past 18 months has pledged fidelity to the goal of rebuilding the public's trust and confidence in the legislature. Those promises have come during a period marked by questionable or unethical behaviors of elected officials, their staff and several of their political allies.

Talking is not walking.

Consider that council members elected as interim chairman pro tempore Michael A. Brown -- someone who flouted local laws at dizzying speed; last month, voters denied him re-election. When Jim Graham, as the District's representative to WMATA, was found to have violated that company's standards of conduct, not one legislator spoke out demanding the city open its own investigation. Thankfully, the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability stepped up.

Now, the legislature won't consider during this session campaign finance reform as it had promised. Chairman- elect Phil Mendelson has said there isn't enough time for the required two readings of any bill.

Hogwash.

The council often takes emergency action, pushing through contracts, supplemental budgets and tax write-offs for friends and favored developers. It also holds additional legislative meetings to ensure consideration of critical bills.

Residents' call for campaign finance reform began last year after a federal investigation revealed serious violations by key lieutenants of Vincent C. Gray's 2010 mayoral campaign. Several individuals subsequently pleaded guilty to various federal charges. Those demands for change grew louder after the public learned of a massive $653,000 off-the-books, or "shadow campaign," that may have coordinated its activities with Gray's official committee. The U.S. attorney continues his probe.

Confession: I am no fan of campaign finance reform, particularly so-called anti-pay-to-play proposals that rashly strike out at contractors and corporations -- many

of whom have never violated local laws. Still, elected officials had sufficient time to keep their commitment, addressing the issue forthrightly rather than allowing legislation to languish.

Ward 4's Muriel Bowser, whose Committee on Government Operations has oversight of campaign finance, had pledged "meaningful campaign finance reform" before year's end.

This week, she sang a different tune: "Nobody expects me to move something just for the sake of saying that I moved [it]." She partially blamed the mayor's late introduction of his proposal, which wasn't until October. But insisted it's more important to offer "good policy" than to rush.

"I'm not stalling," Bowser added.

Really?!

Without passage, a new bill -- combining the half-dozen bills originally proposed -- would have to be introduced next session after Jan. 2. Another round of public hearings may be required, if substantial changes have been made.

Residents may be unhappy about the turn of events, but legislators haven't publicly complained. Many of them probably aren't interested in campaign finance reform. After all, a drop in special interests and corporate dollars could slow -- or even end -- their political ambitions.

Bowser declined to offer a date when residents should expect action from her committee or the full council. "Beginning in the next session, it should move quickly."

It's deja vu all over again.

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

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