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In the Wake of Recent Scandals and Brewing Federal Investigations, The D.C. Council Appears To Be Taking Another Look at Pay-To-Play Reform

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With all apologies to 1980s rockers Great White, it would have been quite easy for D.C.Councilman Tommy Wells (D – Ward 6) to take a “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” approach to pay-to-play reform in the District of Columbia. After all, two of his 2011 proposals on the subject were  actively left out of the final version of the city’s recently-passed comprehensive ethics reform bill. Those two proposals would have prohibited bundled corporate campaign contributions and barred District officials from accepting donations from city contractors, but both were met with universal opposition from the other members of the Council.

Rather than give up on the idea of reform, however, Wells went back to the drawing board, reconfigured his pay-to-play proposals, and waited for the opportune moment to reintroduce them before the Council. Just this week, after three months of waiting, Wells seems to have found his moment. . . . thanks in large part to the parade of federal corruption investigations being initiated against current and former D.C. officials, as well as the District’s largest corporate contractor.

For those who have missed the media coverage, since the beginning of the year, federal investigators from myriad agencies have been exploring various corruption allegations lodged against a number of Washington, D.C. officials and political kingmakers. For example, nearly two months ago, Mr. Harry Thomas, Jr., who previously represented Ward 5 on the D.C. Council, was forced to resign his post before pleading guilty to felony charges related to the theft of $353,000 in taxpayer funds. Likewise, Mayor Vincent Gray has been the subject of an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia concerning potential violations of city campaign finance laws during his 2010 election run against Adrian Fenty. Now, just this past week, federal investigators raided the home and offices of Mr. Jeffrey Thompson, the city’s single-largest contractor and a prolific political donor, as part of what appears to be an investigation into his business and political ties to the Mayor and other District officials.

With a growing number of District officials under the microscope, Wells found just the opportunity he was looking for – a more fertile environment for the reintroduction of his pay-to-play proposals. This time, with the support and co-sponsorship of Ms. Mary Cheh (D – Ward 3), Wells has introduced a piece of legislation that would limit “pay-to-play” politics by forbidding District procurement contracts from being granted to individuals who have given more than $2,000 in the aggregate within the three previous calendar years to any political organization authorized to make contributions to or expenditures on behalf of any official or candidate who can vote on such agreements. This $2,000 limit would apply to contributions made to District campaign committees, political committees, political party committees, PACs, exploratory committees, legal defense committees, inaugural committees, and constituent-service programs.

In addition to this strict pay-to-play provision, the Wells-Cheh bill seeks to prohibit individuals who have raised more than $10,000 for any District official or candidate during an election cycle from receiving any procurement contract, lease or appointment from the District for a period of three years following the fundraising activity. The legislation also includes an outright ban on corporate political contributions in the District and a strict prohibition on political contributions by District contractors during any period of procurement application or performance.

Will this latest effort at pay-to-play reform gain any traction with any of Wells and Cheh’s fellow D.C. Council members? It depends on how desperate their colleagues are to distance themselves from the investigative storm clouds rolling in on the Mayor and Mr. Thompson… For those Council members up for reelection in 2012, the pressure to get on the right side of the corruption issue might lead some to reconsider last year’s opposition to pay-to-play restrictions. The Washington Post Editorial Board and a citizen-led ballot initiative group are doing their part to support the reform efforts, but on a Council that counts Marion Barry as one of its own, passage of any type of pay-to-play legislation is far from a sure thing….

Regardless of that fact, however, individuals and corporations that do business with the District of Columbia and actively participate in its politics should keep a close eye on the Wells-Cheh bill and the parallel ballot initiative. The implementation of any one of the provisions set forth in either the proposed legislation or initiative would fundamentally change the nature of contract procurement and political participation in the District, bringing Washington, D.C. into line with some of the more restrictive pay-to-play jurisdictions in the country. As things progress along the Potomac, Pay-to-Play Law Blog will keep you updated….

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