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Mayorís campaign rebuke upheld

(Published September 11, 2000)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

Mayor Anthony A. Williams lost another round in his attempt to legally justify using government employees, money and resources to campaign in favor of last Juneís school board referendum.

After hearing five hours of arguments, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics voted 3 to 0 Sept. 6 to uphold a June 16 ruling by the Office of Campaign Finance that found Williams in violation of campaign finance laws.

Dorothy Brizill, a community activist and executive director of DC Watch, filed the original complaint against Williams after a June 8 press conference at J. O. Wilson Elementary School where the mayor used government employees, teachers, students and facilities to launch his campaign in favor of the referendum.

The campaign finance office ordered Williams to "immediately terminate all action involving the use of the resources of the District of Columbia to influence the outcome of" the referendum vote. The referendum, which voters approved June 27 by a slim margin, amended the cityís home rule charter to replace the all-elected D.C. Board of Education with a school board partially appointed by the mayor.

Williams appealed the OCF ruling to the elections board after the election, claiming it restricted his First Amendment free speech rights by not allowing him to use his staff to push the referendum. He also argued that he made his decision to use government workers based on an opinion from the corporation counsel that interpreted the referendum as a legislative action instead of a campaign. The elections board rejected Williamsí arguments.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Williams said he has not decided whether to appeal the latest ruling to D.C. Superior Court.

"Every time they appeal they remind people that the mayor just doesnít understand campaign ethics," said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Gary Imhoff, who is also Brizillís husband. "If the mayor has good sense, heíll let it drop because heís not going to win in the courts."

Brizill also lodged a complaint with the elections board against D.C. Corporation Counsel Robert R. Rigsby who represented the mayor in his appeal. She argued that Rigsby, the cityís top lawyer, could not represent Williams because it would be a conflict of interest for him to represent the mayor as a city employee against a city agency. She said that, in effect, that would turn the cityís lawyers into Williamsí personal lawyers.

The elections board rejected Brizillís arguments to bar Williams from using city lawyers for his appeal. General Counsel Kenneth McGhie said the board made that ruling because the original complaint concerned the mayorís status as an elected official.

"We wouldnít have been here in the first place if the Office of Campaign Finance hadnít found that he was acting in his official capacity," McGhie said.

Brizill also filed a complaint with the D.C. Bar Association over whether it is appropriate for Rigsby to handle Williamsí appeal. That matter is still pending before the associationís Bar Counsel, which hears and prosecutes complaints against attorneys.

Imhoff said he and Brizill will continue to pursue the matter because they feel this is an attempt by the mayor to take control of the cityís fleet of lawyers.

"It is like saying that the justice department represents the president and not the United States," Imhoff said. "Itís without precedent because no one ever thought they could get away with it before."

Meanwhile, the mayorís office has yet to provide the detailed accounting of how much government money was spent to promote approval of the school board referendum that Williams promised to provide.

Councilwoman Kathleen Patterson, D-Ward 3, who heads the councilís Committee on Government Operations, sent a letter in July asking the mayor to detail how much public money was spent improperly. A spokeswoman for Patterson said a reply was received from the mayorís office but it didnít give enough information and was sent back for more.

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator