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Go Ask Alice: D.C. needs ethics commission now

On Saturday morning, a news article in The New York Times (In Washington, Headlines That Revive Bad Memories, with pictures of last Monday’s protest) suggested that Mayor Vincent Gray is allowing his critics to revive “memories of the 1980s” when Councilmember Marion Barry was mayor because of staff members apparently “helping their children get jobs [at] inflated salaries” and other “missteps.” Also on Saturday, The Washington Post, in the lead editorial put said bluntly it’s “time for the U.S. Attorney’s Office to take up the case of D.C. Chairman Kwame Brown” because of “widespread irregularities and discrepancies involving tens of thousands of dollars” found in an audit of his 2008 at-large reelection in which he faced token opposition. These and other problems involving both Mayor Gray and Chairman Brown as well as other councilmembers, has made ethics a central issue with the public and in the campaign for the at-large seat in the April 26th special election. While the candidates have talked about more disclosure, banning certain actions, forming a Council committee on ethics and introducing emergency legislation, none has come up with point-by-point plan to take on this many-faceted problem. Therefore, we want to put a concrete proposal on the table. While we applaud the recent hearings and unequivocal integrity of Councilmember Mary Cheh, we think there are broader, deeper issues that deserve thorough examination and comprehensive reform. We propose Mayor Gray and/or Chairman Brown set up a an independent commission on government ethics, chaired by Alice Rivlin, the eminent District resident of unquestioned ethics and morality, to examine our entire broken ethics system and recommend a set of changes. We want Ms. Rivlin because of her distinguished national career and long-time involvement with the District. Currently head of the Greater Washington Research project at the Brookings Institution, Ms. Rivlin chaired the Control Board in its closing days, wrote Financing the Nation’s Capital and was vice chair of the Federal Reserve System and director of both OMB and the Congressional Budget Office. Other District activities include leadership positions with the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, D.C. Public Charter School Association, Dumbarton Concerts, the Cafritz Foundation and the D.C. Primary Care Association. In addition to Ms. Rivlin as chair, we suggest Marie Johns as co-chair. Ms. Johns, now with the Small Business Administration, is the former president of Verizon D.C, and best-known for her credible 1996 mayoral candidacy. In addition we suggest former at-large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot, a trial lawyer and member of the D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure, and former D.C. Auditor Matt Watson to bring thoughtful insights and solutions to this commissioin. There is no shortage of questionable actions by our elected officials for the Rivlin Commission to look at. In addition to those written about in the Times and Post, these include Sulaimon Brown’s accusation of cash from the Gray campaign and his briefly-held D.C. Government job, the still unrevealed Team Thomas financial records from Councilmember Harry Thomas, the questionable use of Constituent Services funds by Councilmember Yvette Alexander, the recent guilty plea in federal court by the former chief of staff to Councilmember Jim Graham, the income and property taxes owed by Councilmember Michael A. Brown and Councilmember Marion Barry’s driving a car with expired tags and hiring his girlfriend, Donna Watts-Brighthaupt. The Rivlin Ethics Commisssion should look at and recommend changes on: --Financial disclosure for elected and high-level appointed officials (the current form is so brief and subjective as to be a joke), --Rules for hiring relatives and those with whom an official has an intimate relationship, --Who should investigate and hold accountable councilmembers and the mayor --The role of the Council-appointed D.C. Auditor (who has not been heard from as these problems multiply), and the Inspector General, who carelessly dis-empowered himself and whose office has not adequately met recent challenges, --Contribution limits and disclosure rules for candidates, constituent services funds, transition committees and other politically financed bodies, --Conflict-of-interest standards for all elected and appointed officials, as well as enforcement procedures. A commission is needed to set standards, clarify who oversees what, and make sure adequate resources are applied to get to the bottom of the litany of ethics complaints before our entire government is crippled. The model is in fact the Council, under the first-rate leadership of then Chairman Gray, engaging the distinguished lawyer Robert S. Bennett before taking action against Councilmember Barry last year. It is unfortunately true that, as Councilmember David Catania told The Times, “The leadership of our city has been diminished and embarrassed, and that undercuts our ability to make the case about why we should govern ourselves.” However, it is also true that ethical behavior is something we should do for ourselves, before others pre-empt our governance -- and self-government.