D.C. Coun­cil takes aim at pay-to-play

DE­BATE TO CHANGE STA­TUS QUO BE­GINS Bills limit con­tract awards to cam­paign donors

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY PETER JAMI­SON

From the sto­ried pa­tron­age of Mar­ion Barry Jr. to a re­cent con­tract-steer­ing con­tro­versy in the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), the na­tion’s cap­i­tal has long been no­to­ri­ous for what crit­ics say is a pay-toplay cul­ture at D.C. city hall.

On Mon­day, District law­mak­ers will be­gin de­bat­ing how to change that sta­tus quo, as a D.C. Coun­cil com­mit­tee holds a hear­ing on mul­ti­ple bills that would limit the award­ing of gov­ern­ment con­tracts to po­lit­i­cal donors.

The dis­cus­sion comes af­ter a Wash­ing­ton Post poll last month showed that District res­i­dents con­tinue to take a dim view of their elected of­fi­cials’ ties to deep-pock­eted cam­paign con­trib­u­tors. By a mar­gin of 48 per­cent to 31 per­cent, those sur­veyed rated Bowser neg­a­tively on her ef­forts to curb the in­flu­ence of wealthy po­lit­i­cal donors.

“Cam­paign fi­nance re­form has come to our at­ten­tion over and over again as we’re out in the com­mu­nity,” said D.C. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Karl A. Racine, who drafted one of the bills that will be up for de­bate Mon­day at a hear­ing held by the coun­cil’s ju­di­ciary com­mit­tee.

Among other things, Racine’s bill would ban po­lit­i­cal donors from bid­ding for city con­tracts worth more than $100,000 within two years of the election cy­cle in which they sup­ported a can­di­date who could de­cide or in­flu­ence the award­ing of those con­tracts. The re­stric­tion would also ap­ply to other types of busi­ness ar­range­ments with the city, such as tax cred­its or land deals.

Racine — who is often men­tioned as a po­ten­tial challenger for Bowser when she seeks a second term in 2018 — said the need for such leg­is­la­tion was driven home by a re­cent D.C. Coun­cil com­mit­tee in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­le­ga­tions that a se­nior mem­ber of Bowser’s cabi­net tried to steer road work to Fort Myer Con­struc­tion, a top cam­paign donor to Bowser and other politi­cians.

A re­port re­leased by the com­mit­tee’s chair­woman, Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), stated that City Ad­min­is­tra­tor Rashad M. Young had in­ter­vened in the con­tract­ing process to ben­e­fit Fort Myer Con­struc­tion. Cheh also al­leged that an un­known District em­ployee may have leaked con­fi­den­tial in­for­ma­tion to the com­pany about a com­peti­tor’s bid.

Young has said he in­ter­vened only to en­sure the bid­ding process was con­ducted fairly, and Bowser has dis­missed Cheh’s sug­ges­tion of an il­le­gal leak of in­for­ma­tion to Fort Myer Con­struc­tion as “a wild ac­cu­sa­tion.”

But Racine said the re­port “re­ally il­lu­mi­nates the kind of ap­pear­ance of a pay-to-play cul­ture that, again, res­i­dents of the District of Columbia just don’t want to have at­tached to them.”

A sep­a­rate bill in­tro­duced by coun­cil mem­bers Vin­cent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) aims to limit con­tri­bu­tions from com­pa­nies with con­tracts worth more than $250,000 be­tween the time the com­pany knows the con­tract will be avail­able and when it is awarded. The lim­its would also ap­ply to suc­cess­ful bid­ders for one year af­ter they re­ceive their fi­nal pay­ment from the city.

Gray him­self was not long ago at the cen­ter of one of the city’s most se­ri­ous cam­paign-fi­nance scan­dals. A fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Gray’s suc­cess­ful 2010 may­oral run found that city con­trac­tor Jef­frey E. Thomp­son fundeda $653,000 “shadow cam­paign” to elect him.

Thomp­son pleaded guilty, as did some Gray as­so­ciates. Gray, who de­nied know­ing about the il­le­gal spend­ing, was never charged, though he blamed his 2014 loss to Bowser on fall­out from the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. He did not re­turn calls seek­ing com­ment on Fri­day.

Bowser spokes­woman LaToya Foster de­clined to say whether the mayor sup­ports lim­it­ing or ban­ning po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions by city con­trac­tors.

“We are mon­i­tor­ing the leg­isla­tive process and look for­ward to a con­tin­ued con­ver­sa­tion about how we and our part­ners on the coun­cil can con­tinue to build trust in gov­ern­ment,” Foster said in an email.

Craig Hol­man, gov­ern­ment-af­fairs lob­by­ist at the non­profit group Pub­lic Cit­i­zen, said he was aware of 15 states that reg­u­late po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions by gov­ern­ment con­trac­tors.

Hol­man, who helped draft a cam­paign-fi­nance re­form bill for Gray when he was still mayor, said the most ef­fec­tive reg­u­la­tions are those that ap­ply to a com­pany’s ex­ec­u­tives and their rel­a­tives, not just the firms.

“One of the most im­por­tant el­e­ments of an ef­fec­tive pay-toplay pro­posal is to de­fine gov­ern­ment con­trac­tors in a broad sense,” Hol­man said. The draft leg­is­la­tion he wrote never be­came law.

The bill cur­rently pend­ing that was in­tro­duced by Gray and White would al­low po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions by fam­ily mem­bers of com­pany of­fi­cers, but limit them at $300 per per­son for each election cy­cle. In­di­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tion lim­its ordinarily range from $500 to ward coun­cil mem­bers’ cam­paigns to $2,000 for the may­oral elec­tions.

Coun­cil mem­ber Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who heads the ju­di­ciary com­mit­tee, said he hopes to take the best el­e­ments of the bills and put them in a sin­gle piece of leg­is­la­tion that would ad­vance to the full coun­cil.

“This is a city where we do tens of mil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of con­tracts on a reg­u­lar ba­sis,” Allen said. “When there are some con­trac­tors who do­nate money to the very peo­ple who make de­ci­sions on whether or not they get the con­tract or not. That feeds the per­cep­tion of pay-to-play.”

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