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Shame on them
(Published March 7, 2005)

The three newest members of D.C. City Council Marion Barry, Kwame Brown and Vincent Gray should be ashamed of themselves for siding with two of their mayoral wannabe colleagues to block emergency legislation that would have required retroactive disclosure of the gobs of cash already changing hands in the 2006 mayoral campaign.

The votes of declared mayoral candidate Jack Evans and maybe-I'll-be-a-candidate-after-I-tire-of-raising-money-surreptitiously-albeit-legally Vincent Orange combined with those of Barry, Brown and Gray on March 1 to withhold the margin needed to enact At-Large Councilman Phil Mendelson's bill that would have reined in the unregulated activities of so-called "exploratory committees."

The primary arguments against enacting the legislation that the proposal wasn't strong enough, that it might embarrass some contributors or that it would cause some not-yet-officially-declared candidates to break a pledge of secrecy to their donors (Shazam! Are we laughing, or crying, yet?) are reason enough to question whether those who advance them possess suitable character to represent the public.

The District's current campaign finance disclosure laws allow the formation of "exploratory committees" so that individuals may "test the waters" for seeking elective office. While the law defines these committees and their permitted activities, there is no legally enforceable requirement that such a committee's existence, or its activities, be disclosed to the public.

What the current law asks citizens to do is merely trust that anyone who forms one of these committees will be forthright and completely honest in disclosing their previous financial relationships with individuals, companies and special-interest groups if they decide to become a candidate for elective office. And it also assumes that current elected officials who form these committees will disclose that they are taking money from or giving it to special interests over which they exercise their governmental authority. Scout's honor.

There's too much winking in the current "non-campaigns for mayor" that have been launched by Councilman Orange (who chairs the committee with purview over campaign finance laws), Ward 4 Councilman Adrian Fenty, former Democratic Party boss A. Scott Bolden and boxing commissioner Michael Brown. All four have acknowledged formation of exploratory committees to consider running for mayor, and several fund-raising events have already attracted hundreds of thousands of contributors' dollars.

Orange has repeatedly asserted that his exploratory committee is abiding by D.C. law. On faith, we assume that's the case with all four "non-candidates." But that's not the issue. The issue is that they are complying with a bad law that does not serve the public interest.

Only Fenty has vowed to abide by contribution limits set for official campaign committees and has disclosed some of his contributors. Fenty also voted for Mendelson's disclosure bill.

Three years ago, in an editorial published on March 11, 2002, The Common Denominator urged D.C. City Council to close the exploratory committee loophole in the law. In the interim, the council has done nothing but continue to wink at a situation that breeds suspicion and fosters government corruption. It's time to change the law.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator