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City lawyer calls campaign finance rebuke ‘absurd,’ seeks re-hearing

(Published July 3, 2000)


Staff Writer

Corporation Counsel Robert Rigsby, citing what he calls an "absurd" central premise, is appealing a ruling that ordered Mayor Anthony A. Williams to stop spending tax dollars to campaign for the school board referendum.

The appeal, filed June 30 by the city’s chief attorney, seeks a hearing "at the earliest possible opportunity" to throw out the order from the Office of Campaign Finance "in light of the critical importance of this issue to the proper functioning of the Office of the Mayor."

Rigsby’s seven-page notice of appeal to D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics Chairman Benjamin F. Wilson says allowing the order to stand "would straitjacket the current and later Mayors in fulfilling their official responsibility to take positions on issues that…they believe have major significance for the long-term well-being of the District’s citizens."

The June 16 order from Office of Campaign Finance Director Cecily E. Collier-Montgomery was issued in response to a complaint filed June 12 by community activist Dorothy A. Brizill. Collier-Montgomery’s order focused primarily on a portion of Brizill’s wide-ranging complaint that dealt with the mayor officially kicking off the pro-referendum campaign during a June 8 press conference held in the middle of the school day at J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Northeast Washington.

Five of the mayor’s aides, including Deputy Chief of Staff Mark Jones, went on leave to run the pro-referendum campaign from a Capitol Hill office after Brizill filed her complaint.

The outcome of the June 27 special election remains in doubt. A slim 848-vote margin separates the "for" and "against" tallies, approximately 2,000 absentee and challenged ballots are yet to be counted on July 7, and a court challenge to the legality of the election is set to be heard on July 13. If the current situation prevails, the city’s home rule charter will be changed to replace the all-elected Board of Education with a school board partially appointed by the mayor.

The corporation counsel’s notice of appeal was filed one day after Dan Leistikow, who took leave from his job as the mayor’s speechwriter to work as a spokesman for the pro-referendum campaign, told The Common Denominator that all mayoral aides who attended the June 8 press conference planned to file paperwork that would classify their time at the campaign event as personal leave time. Leistikow also said the pro-referendum New School Leadership Committee would pay the normally assessed rental fee for using a school building for the campaign kickoff event.

Mayor Williams, responding to questions at a post-election press conference on June 28, said his staff "can look into" placing a dollar figure on how much tax money was spent on pro-referendum campaign activities. "If it was spent, we certainly will pay it back," the mayor said.

Rigsby argues in the notice of appeal that the mayor "in his official capacity…certainly had the duty – and did, in fact, carry out the duty – to express his views on the proposed (home rule) Charter amendment at the June 8, 2000, press conference."

In order to exercise his right to freedom of speech, Rigsby further contends, "Mayor Williams necessarily needed assistance from the people on his immediate staff who normally assist him to prepare for and to hold press conferences….This assistance included the involvement of approximately a dozen government employees and the preparation of a standard press kit."

The appeal says "there was no measurable expenditure of public funds" associated with the June 8 press conference. "If the Mayor’s immediate aides had not engaged in this activity, their salaries would have been paid anyway," Rigsby argues.

Brizill, who is continuing to pursue further allegations of illegal campaign activities conducted in support of the School Governance Charter Amendment Act of 2000, said the appeal shows "the mayor does not understand ethical standards."

"After he is told what is wrong, he still doesn’t understand that it’s wrong," Brizill said. "It just makes you wonder: Do they not get it? Do they not understand the difference between discharging the duties of the Office of Mayor and running a campaign?"

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator