Bill Lightfoot talks to The Georgetown Dish
Bill Lightfoot is a prominent attorney, former D.C. Councilmember, campaign manager for Mayor Adrian Fenty and fundraiser for Council Chairman Kwame Brown. The Georgetown Dish asked him to comment on recent ethics scandals in the D.C. government.
Tell us a little about your background.
I was on the City Council for eight years (1989–1997) as an independent and for the past 14 yrs have been chair and vice chair of the DC Judicial Tenure and Disability Commission, and am currently vice chair. How should we deal with the current ethics problems plaguing our local government? If we were to enforce the existing laws and provide law enforcement with the proper resources, primarily staff, then people who are wrongdoers would be held accountable and we would not need to change the law. We need to enforce the existing law. I’ve read the three bills before the City Council -- two by Councilmember Vincent Orange and one by Chairman Kwame Brown and Councilmember Mary Cheh -- and I believe the content of the bills can be accomplished by Mayor’s Orders as well as by Council resolution, not new laws. Could you be more specific? Yes. The Orange bill calls what is already required in existing law, namely every agency is required to have an ethics counselor and the ethics officer for the city operating out of the Office of the Attorney General. Indeed, the laws on ethics and accountability have been around for years but have not been enforced. I challenge you to identify an ethics officer in any agency (other than AG). And if there is no ethics officer, there is no training and counseling, there can be no investigation or correction of ethics violations. Your also have strong views about the Board of Elections and Ethics (BOEE). To the extent that there are alleged violations of ethics, those complaints are to go primarily to the BOEE and for a month it has had only one member and cannot operate. There is no way you can enforce ethics rules without a functioning and fully-staffed BOEE. And the BOEE can investigate and make findings with respect to ethical violations involving councilmembers. Do have suggestions as to whom the Mayor should nominate? He can fill these appointments with retired judges, for instance. There are numerous retired judges who are young, vibrant and who have demonstrated a commitment to community service and whose ethics and honesty are above question. Can you comment more specifically about the allegations concerning some of our councilmembers? The ethical problems that are reported in the media are primarily of elected officials which therefore puts it in the political arena and the politics of these ethical situations are very complex. Like so many things in this city, that are political, there is a racial component to it. Let’s first try and define what the problem is, and I’m just going to do it in the context of the allegations. We have allegations that Councilmember Evans, white, has misused his constituent services funds. We have allegations that Councilmember Jim Graham, who is white from Ward 1, was aware that a staffmember attempted to bribe him but did not report the bribe and he did not punish the staffmember. That would certainly seem to implicate certain ethical rules that are in the existing law. We have allegations that Harry Thomas stole money from the DC Government and has now had to repay it and he’s a Black from Ward 5. There were allegations that Yvette Alexander, from Ward 7, a Black councilmember, misused constituent services funds; allegations that Michael Brown, has been engaged in a conflict of interest in the manner and methods he used to pass online gambling and its relationship to clients he may have lobbied for in his law firm and he’s Black. You’d think in the case of Harry Thomas, where for all practical purposes there’s been an admission that he took money from the government, you’d think that any elected official [would call for his resignation]. And in fact several have: Mary Cheh, white; David Catania, white, Tommy Wells, white. Not one black councilmember has called for the resignation of Harry Thomas. Not that they don’t condemn his actions, but I think there is a concern, and that is the complex part about these ethical violations, there is a concern in some segments of the Black community in this town to call for the removal of Black politicians will further the gentrification of the city. And as we all know that is a complex issue with emotions on both sides. Furthermore, there is a view among a segment of the Black population in the city that a double standard is applied to the alleged unethical conduct of Black politicians versus white politicians. The [louder] outcry over the conduct of Harry Thomas does not seem to be [equal] to the outcry over Jim Graham’s conduct of not reporting a known bribe. Some people view that as a double standard. The enforcement of the alleged violations is complex. But whatever enforcement there is must be evenhanded and racially neutral. Are you saying that enforcement is not even-handed and racially neutral? Well there is no enforcement right now. There are allegations of unethical conduct right now [with] the only enforcement actions that has occurred is by the Attorney General against Harry Thomas. There is no investigation of Jack Evans; no investigation of Jim Graham and no investigation of Michael Brown. There was an investigation of Yvette Alexander. The only enforcement is against Harry Thomas. What about the role of the media coverage of these actions? You cannot separate this from the media coverage. There is a large segment of the African-American community that condemns even the appearance of unethical conduct by these elected officials. But there is also a segment that says ‘yes maybe they were wrong, but we want to see that the standards are equally enforced.’ What about the seriousness of the alleged violations against say, Harry Thomas? Is the alleged misconduct of Harry Thomas greater than or less than the alleged misconduct of Jim Graham? I don’t know. Were they both engaged in misconduct? The answer is yes. Now if you want to start to make distinctions between them maybe you can. [But] there still need to be an investigation, there needs to be full disclosure. I think some people would say for Harry Thomas there has been the investigation and full disclosure and for others there hasn’t been. This is not about picking on Jim Graham. I make no allegations about Mr. Graham and others. I know only what I read in the paper. I am speaking about the enforcement of these ethical rules, particularly where we have not had enforcement mechanisms in place right now. What’s the problem? We have no enforcement – there are no ethics counselors; there is nobody at the BOEE. Togo West resigned because he said he had not auditors – if you have no auditors, you can’t do investigations. Who should act first? The Mayor should issue a Mayor’s Order to every agency to appoint an ethics adviser. And you don’t have to hire anybody new. And the mayor could submit for the two members of the BOEE. Again, nothing can happen without there being an effective BOEE. We need someone who has a moral compass, who knows the difference between right and wrong. I personally don’t think it’s that hard. We’re not talking about somebody who’s aggressive, but somebody who will read the law and will follow the law Is the BOEE really that powerful? For every type of misconduct that’s been alleged, the BOEE is authorized to investigate and report. If the BOEE makes finding that a councilmember had violated an ethical rule that would have repercussions at the next elections. Do the investigations, reporting and enforcement actions show that home rule is working? The fact the BOEE referred the Kwame Brown matter to the US Attorney, some might suggest that it shows that our system of ethics is working. I would submit, however, it shows a weakness in our system because we, the population in government, that claims home rule, self-government, that we can handle our own affaires, in fact we have not been able to handle these affairs matter when the chairman of the Council has been accused of misappropriating funds, we in government had to refer to the US Attorney. . Likewise, when Councilmember Thomas was accused of diverting public money for private gain, yes our local attorney general investigated and yes he found wrongdoing, but our local government could not enforce the law and hold Mr. Thomas accountable. We again had to refer the matter to the US Attorney, the federal government, for some kind of enforcement action. So that shows that in the enforcement of our ethics laws there is a flaw in our home rule setup that to a certain extent undermines our ability to say we can handle our own affaires. You’d have to have a change in the law to allow local authorities to prosecute felonious acts Do you think that the fact that our AG is white plays a role? No. But race does play a role in the perception of what has occurred and what should occur. All citizens should recognize that the law should be colorblind and equally enforced. What we need at this point in time are people of good will, of honesty, with a moral compass who know the difference between right and wrong who will step forward regardless of the color of the alleged wrongdoer. I repeat, many of the flaws in the current system can be addressed by the Mayor making appointments to the BOEE and by appointing ethics councilors in all the agencies. He could also set up a task force inside the government to see that the law is enforced with training and to see that reporting and investigations are properly handled and done. In view of the current swirl of ethical questions engulfing many of our elected leaders, have you ever had to any ethical questions raised about you? No, there have been no allegations I’ve had to respond to. Thank you.