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Williams rebuked

Use of govt. resources for campaigning ‘inherently unfair’

(Published June 19, 2000)


Staff Writer

Mayor Anthony A. Williams, reprimanded June 16 for illegally using government resources to campaign in support of a proposed change in the school board’s structure, said he "will continue to use the full force of my office to educate our citizens on this important matter."

Williams was responding to an order from the Office of Campaign Finance that he "immediately terminate all action involving the use of the resources of the District of Columbia to influence the outcome of the June 27, 2000, election on the matter of a Charter Amendment."

The order did not address whether the government should be repaid – or by whom – for improper use of tax dollars. Mayoral spokeswoman Peggy Armstrong said the question "is not something we’ve been asked to look at." She declined further comment.

The order said the mayor’s activity "ran afoul of (D.C. law) because it affected adversely the confidence of the public in the integrity of government, where government was one sided in its presentation of a ballot issue to be decided by the electorate."

"It is inherently unfair to the opponents of a ballot measure to allow government to open the floodgates and use its wealth of resources to urge the public to ratify the Charter Amendment," the order issued by Office of Campaign Finance Director Cecily E. Collier-Montgomery said.

This is the second time since being elected mayor in 1998 that Williams has been rebuked by the Office of Campaign Finance for violating D.C. law. Last year – coincidentally, also on June 16 – the mayor was fined $1,000 for failing to make a timely report before his election that he had accepted $42,000 in "consulting fees" during his campaign from two city contractors, NationsBank and Arthur Andersen and Co. He called his failure to report the income "wrong and stupid" and "an ethical lapse."

Community activist Dorothy A. Brizill, who filed the most recent complaint against the mayor on June 12 and amended it June 14 with additional charges, vowed to further pursue her allegations of illegal campaign activities being conducted by supporters of the the School Governance Charter Amendment Act of 2000. Among Brizill’s charges, which the Office of Campaign Finance chose not to address in its order, is the alleged operation of a "secret separate campaign" fund-raising effort by the nonprofit D.C. Agenda organization.

In a June 16 letter to the Office of Campaign Finance, D.C. Agenda President John H. McKoy said his organization is voluntarily "returning all donations" received in support of the proposed home rule charter amendment.

"D.C. Agenda is concerned that we may be unable to comply fully with the requirements of the District of Columbia Campaign Finance Laws," McKoy wrote in the notarized statement. As a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, D.C. Agenda is prohibited by Internal Revenue Service regulations from engaging in political activities.

The New School Leadership Committee, which supports the proposed charter amendment’s creation of a partially appointed school board to replace the current elected Board of Education, now faces administrative review by the Office of Campaign Finance over Brizill’s charge that the committee falsified and omitted financial information in its initial required report filings.

The committee’s initial financial reports said no money had been spent prior to the June 12 filing deadline, although campaign signs that say they were paid for by the committee were present at the pro-referendum campaign’s kickoff press conference on June 8 and a campaign office was opened.

The press conference kicking off the campaign, held in the middle of a school day at J. O. Wilson Elementary School in Northeast Washington, raised additional questions in Brizill’s complaint, as well as prompting referendum supporter and Ward 3 Councilwoman Kathleen Patterson to ask the campaign committee if it signed a use agreement and paid fees for the building’s use.

The mayor was criticized during the press conference for allegedly using seven children who were taken out of class to attend the press conference as "political ploys." Principal Erma Fields said only two of the children, who spoke in support of the referendum, had parental permission to participate in the press conference.

Mayor Williams called it "perfectly appropriate" for the children to attend the press conference and added that the referendum’s opponents were also free to use school facilities for their events. Larry Gray, a spokesman for the campaign opposing the amendment, said their committee has no plans to disrupt classes with their political events. "Class time is class time," he said.

The pro-referendum campaign committee’s Capitol Hill office is being staffed by five mayoral aides who took official leave from their government jobs after Brizill filed her complaint. The mayor’s deputy chief of staff for external relations, Mark Jones, is managing the campaign on paid vacation time, according to campaign spokesman Dan Leistikow, who is taking unpaid leave from his job as the mayor’s speechwriter. Also taking unpaid leave is Eric Foster, the mayor’s special assistant for federal, congressional and local affairs. Marshall Brown, who works in the mayor’s Office of the Public Advocate, and Charles Onwuche, technology program manager in the mayor’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations, are using paid vacation time to work on the campaign.

The opposing campaign, officially called the D.C. Citizens to Support Our Children and Preserve Our Elected School Board, filed its campaign documents May 31 and officially launched its campaign at One Judiciary Square on June 6. Eight organizations and political groups – including all four of the city’s official political parties -- came together to form the committee that is urging voters to defeat the referendum: the D.C. Congress of Parent and Teacher Associations, the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations, D.C. PACE, Stand Up for Democracy and the Democratic, Republican, Statehood-Green and Umoja parties.

A so-called "hybrid" – partially elected and partially appointed – school board would replace the current 11-member elected D.C. Board of Education if voters approve the referendum at the special election on June 27. The proposed new nine-member school board would have one member elected citywide as school board president. Four members would be elected to represent four new geographic boundaries that would combine residents in Wards 1 and 2, Wards 3 and 4, Wards 5 and 6, and Wards 7 and 8. The mayor would appoint the other four members of the board, with council approval of the appointments required.

As worded, the measure also would allow the new school board’s structure to be changed again in four years, and thereafter, by placing the authority to make further changes in how the school board is selected in the hands of the elected city council, rather than requiring the voters to pass judgment.

The referendum also would insert language defining the school board’s duties into the home rule charter. A change in the home rule charter requires an affirmative vote by a majority of the voters who turn out to vote on a proposed amendment.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator