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Close the campaign loophole
(Published March 11, 2002)

To almost anyone who heard him on March 6, Marion Barry sounded like he was declaring his candidacy to run for the at-large city council seat currently held by fellow Democrat Phil Mendelson.

But D.C. law says Barry isnít a candidate.

The discrepancy is all about money.

Barry can legally claim to be a "non-candidate" until he acknowledges receiving or spending money for campaign purposes, files a "statement of candidacy" or takes out nominating petitions (which wonít become available until May).

In the meantime, Barry is taking advantage of an extremely large loophole in local campaign finance laws. Like many other politicians before him, including Mayor Anthony Williams, Barry has formed something called an "exploratory committee."

And thatís where the public needs to pay close attention.

Local campaign finance regulations define an exploratory committeeís function as "testing the waters" to determine a potential candidateís viability. Exploratory committees are not allowed to engage in campaign activities, according to their definition. But they can accept contributions in any amount and spend money without ever disclosing any of their activities to the public. There is no registration requirement or enforcement mechanism in the law to ensure that exploratory committees are not abused.

In an extreme example of possible abuse, an exploratory committee for a "non-candidate" could accept thousands of dollars from individuals, companies or interest groups in return for a promise of future favors if the "non-candidate" runs for elective office and wins. The contributions could stay totally "off the books" and could end up in the "non-candidateís" pocket. But the public would never know.

An exploratory committee is required to make full public disclosure of its financial activities, retroactively, under only one circumstance: if the "non-candidate" chooses to convert the exploratory committee into his or her principal campaign committee upon deciding to seek office. But the candidate may simply choose to start a new campaign committee and never disclose the "exploratory" activities.

Itís all perfectly legal in the District.

Yet, this loophole makes a complete mockery of local campaign finance laws. The public deserves to know who is bankrolling someoneís candidacy for public office from Day One. The issues are honesty, integrity and accountability.

At a minimum D.C. law should require that exploratory committees register their existence, and public disclosure of their financial transactions should be mandatory if their activities result in someoneís declaration of candidacy for elective office.

Last month, incumbent Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham told The Common Denominator he has no intention of disclosing the contributors of more than $30,000 to an exploratory committee he currently is using to help him decide whether he should seek re-election.

Graham, Barry and any other candidates who have formed exploratory committees compromise their public integrity if they exploit this legal loophole by allowing their contributors to remain secret.

When candidates seek public office, they are asking the public to trust them. Refusing to disclose their donors suggests they donít trust the public.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator