Mr. Chairman and members, I am Dan Wedderburn, providing written testimony for DC For Democracy (DC4D). Please include this in the Record for the Public Hearing held November 2 on this Bill.
DC4D’s membership now stands at about 650 after significant increases this year. DC4D has a keen interest in this Bill proposed by the independent DC Board of Government & Ethics (BEGA). You may recall we testified strongly for BEGA’s creation in response to the scandals that occurred.
DC4D strongly supports the proposed ‘DC Comprehensive Code of Conduct’. Not only would it apply to Executive Branch officials, Councilmembers and key staff would also come under BEGA’s purview. This is a major and welcome change.
Current practice has been for the Council to abide by its own Code of Conduct and receive opinions from its own General Counsel (GC), especially on potentiai conflicts of interest on legislation and outside employment. These communications are privileged and not available to the public. Importantly, the GC is hired, paid by and can be removed by the Council. This itself creates a clear conflict when the GC provides its opinions to members. Under this Bill, the Council would no longer have this “safe harbor” because its Code would be phased out and BEGA’s proposed Code would supercede it.
A major concern of DC4D is the lack of an effective enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance with the proposed Code of Conduct. BEGA now takes on a case only if an individual or entity requests it in writing to do so. This means BEGA would be mostly conducting an investigation only after an alleged violation has occurred. Many if not most conflicts of interest occur, e.g, during or before the legislative process not after legislation becomes law. The same occurs in the Executive Branch, e.g., during the process of making policy decisions, rulemaking, or reviewing proposals before awarding contracts.
Hence it appears there will be virtually no oversight by BEGA during the process prior to actual decisions and opinions have been made.
This Bill is a definite improvement over the status quo, including expanding definitions of who is covered by the Code and more stringent requirements for what constitutes appropriate conduct by DC officials. To a large extent, however, it is a consolidation of various existing codes of conduct among several District agencies. Hence what reason is there to believe current enforcement mechanisms will result in greater compliance? Further, does information even exist on the level of compliance now?
Widespread distrust and disillusionment with the integrity of public officials continues. It is believed government decision making is largely controlled by corporations because of their big campaign contributions and myriad other favors that drown out the public interest and democracy itself. The Comprehensive Code of Conduct is a definite step forward. The District however has had Codes of Conduct requirements for many years that appear to many to have had little impact on corrupt behavior. They have been largely ignored by the powerful because they have not been held to account. Robust enforcement could change that.