Curb corruption in D.C.: Help get Initiative 70 on the ballot

Kwame Brown & Mayor Vincent Gray
Former D.C. Council Chair Kwame Brown (left) and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (far right). Brown resigned last week after pleading guilty to bank fraud and misusing campaign money.

The U.S. Attorney has taken an active role in our local government. So has the FBI, the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, and the D.C. Attorney General. Now it’s time for fellow residents to take action, and here’s a great way to do it: Sign the petition for Initiative 70, which will end the destructive pay-to-play culture at the Wilson Building (D.C.’s City Hall).

I’ve helped gather signatures a couple of times to get Initiative 70 on November’s ballot. Last weekend, I was hitting up friends and neighbors. One neighbor cut me off after my first sentence and grabbed the paper out of my hand. “No need to say more,” he said. “I’ll sign.” Still another signed, saying that he supported the measure. He then added that the massive effort being undertaken to get the measure before the voters shouldn’t be necessary.  “We elect people to make hard decisions,” he said.  “We shouldn’t have to do this.”

He’s absolutely right. But this is Washington, D.C. You might have heard that the Council has had a few problems lately.

Two elected officials have resigned after admitting to engaging in criminal activity.  One of them, Harry Thomas Jr., systematically stole more than $350,000 of tax money, diverting it from underprivileged kids into his own bank account. Another, former Council Chair Kwame Brown, resigned last week and pleaded guilty to bank fraud and misusing campaign money. The Feds are investigating Mayor Vincent Gray’s campaign finances and hiring practices. The assistant treasurer for Gray’s campaign pleaded guilty in May to making illegal campaign contributions and destroying related records. And a Gray campaign consultant pleaded guilty in May to lying about giving cash to a minor mayoral candidate to discredit Gray’s opponent.

So what’s Initiative 70? It’s a grassroots, citizen-led effort to help stamp out corruption by stopping the buying of access to local politicians. If we can get it on the November ballot and voters approve it, it would ban direct corporate contributions to D.C. candidates.

Direct contributions from corporations aren’t allowed on the federal level because they help breed corruption. They shouldn’t be allowed on the District level either. We have enough problems with ethics here. We don’t need to invite more.

Initiative 70 was launched by two community activists, Bryan Weaver and Sylvia Brown, who created an entity for this purpose called D.C. Committee to Restore Public Trust. A lot of other people and groups are on board, including Public Citizen and D.C. For Democracy. We’re trying to round up as many people as possible to grab clipboards and gather 23,000 signatures by July 9. The signature-gathering effort is going really well, but more hands on deck are needed to ensure enough signatures to put us over the top.

Here’s the problem with direct corporate contributions: Some businesses — especially contractors with the city — get around District’s campaign finance law by creating multiple shadow companies. These limited liability companies, known as LLCs, have the same parent owner but under the law they don’t have to disclose their ownership. So we don’t know who is giving these tens and hundreds of thousands to our politicians. Beyond the lack of disclosure, there’s also an issue of evasion. By not having to disclose ownership, they are able to give many times more than the individual contribution limits. That’s unfair.

Examples of why corporate donations is a problem seem to appear almost daily in our local press. A prominent city contractor, Jeffrey Thompson, is under investigation for his campaign contributions to D.C. councilmembers. The Feds have searched his home and office. (No charges have been filed.)

And in today’s paper came the news that an official of a D.C. agency that oversees health care spending has been fired because she allegedly tried to steer part of a city contract to a businessman who chairs the re-election campaign of D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser.

Live in D.C.? Are you fed up? Then help. If you’re a registered D.C. voter, please help circulate petitions. Here’s who to contact about volunteering in your area.  You also can sign up to volunteer here or here.