Photo by athrasher on Flickr.

Campaign finance violations in DC have triggered numerous federal investigations and corrupted DC’s political process, but the vast majority of sitting DC councilmembers still seem unwilling to risk cutting off their own sources of money to fix a serious problem.

Amendments from Tommy Wells (Ward 6) on last year’s ethics bill to ban “bundling” and corporate contributions failed on a 12-1 vote. Yesterday, Mary Cheh (Ward 3) introduced a bill to tackle these issues, with Wells co-introducing, but no other councilmembers agreed to co-sponsor.

None of the sitting councilmembers up for reelection signed onto a pledge by at-large candidate David Grosso to increase transparency in donations, and only Wells and Cheh have expressed support for a ballot initiative to ban corporate contributions. Having 11 of 13 councilmembers disinterested in campaign finance reform is unacceptable.

Serious flaws create serious scandals

Some of the biggest flaws in DC campaign finance involve corporate contributions. Corporate entities are allowed to directly give money to candidates in DC, unlike under federal campaign finance law. Worse, many corporate entities have multiple subsidiaries, such as developers who create a separate LLC for each project, and are allowed to donate up to the maximum from each of them separately.

This is very common in DC campaigns. The fact that so many incumbents garner much of their campaign cash this way may be why not a single other councilmember voted for Wells’ amendments to ban the practice.

That’s not the only problem with campaign finance, though perhaps the biggest legal loophole. There are also ongoing federal investigations into the campaigns of Mayor Vincent Gray and Council Chairman Kwame Brown. Prosecutors are reportedly looking into whether the Gray campaign accepted numerous money orders that weren’t really from separate individuals.

The District was reminded of those investigations in dramatic fashion this weekend when the FBI raided the offices of Jeffrey Thompson, who owns Chartered Health Plans, the District’s largest contractor. He is also one of the most significant donors to district politicians.

Thompson and related entities have given more than $700,000 to various campaigns over the years, including massive sums to Gray, former mayor Adrian Fenty, and at-large councilmember Vincent Orange. The raids also targeted a public relations consultant to the Gray campaign.

Proposals seek to mend the system

Several reformists have emerged with concrete proposals to make campaign finance in the district more transparent and effective.

When Tommy Wells introduced his doomed campaign finance amendments to last year’s ethics bill it seemed like his might be the lone voice for reform on the council. But today he joined Mary Cheh as the only cosponsor on her “Campaign Finance Reform Amendment Act of 2012.”

According to a statement by Cheh’s office, the bill would “prohibit pay-to-play, require disclosure of external fundraising activities, and… ban corporate contributions.”

Meanwhile, the DC Committee to Restore Public Trust, led by activist and former council candidate Bryan Weaver and Ward 7 ANC commissioner Sylvia Brown, is pushing a ballot initiative that would ban direct corporate contributions to DC campaigns.

Organizers must collect over 22,000 signatures from registered DC voters to place the initiative on the November ballot. Volunteers plan to gather signatures at every polling place during the April 3 primary.

The initiative has garnered some high-profile backers. Councilmember Wells is providing organizational support and, while announcing her legislation, Councilmember Cheh said that she “wholeheartedly support the efforts of the District residents working on” the initiative. At-large candidates Peter Shapiro, Sekou Biddle, and David Grosso, as well as Ward 8 candidate Jacque Patterson, also have voiced support.

Several candidates running for DC Council in the April 3rd primary, May 5th special, and November 6th general elections are taking an additional step to show their commitment to campaign finance reform. Grosso, who is running for the independent at-large seat up for election in November and currently held by Councilmember Michael A. Brown, has proposed a “transparency challenge” to all council candidates.

The challenge asks candidates to proactively embrace campaign finance reform ideals by pledging to post information on their websites about the directors, managers, shareholders, and corporate structures of any companies that they receive donations from. Additionally, the challenge requires candidates to disclose the names of people who collect multiple donations for them as well as information on each individual donor.

So far, candidates Max Skolnik (Ward 4), Jacque Patterson (Ward 8), and Peter Shapiro (at-large) have pledged to join the challenge. Although, as of March 6, only Grosso has posted his information online. All participants are challenging sitting incumbents. So far, no incumbents have joined the challenge.

Incumbents fail to speak up or act

Unfortunately, aside from Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells, most members of the DC Council seemed unconcerned with campaign finance issues and unlikely to act on reform before the upcoming elections.

Muriel Bowser, primary author of last years ethics bill and chair of the council’s Committee on Government Operations, stated that she intended to take action on campaign finance. However, she has since defended herself for accepting corporate donations and argued against banning corporate money outright, making it unlikely that she will support Cheh’s bill.

It seems even more unlikely that a majority of councilmembers will act on any sort of campaign finance reform. Several have spoken out against reform. Notably, yesterday morning Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) joked about his dislike of Cheh’s legislation.

The rest of the council should work with Cheh and Wells to craft a bill that will reform the campaign finance system while still allowing participation from all engaged parties. DC should ban corporate bundling and strengthen disclosure rules, to make it more apparent who is donating and ensure that corporations do not skirt contribution limits. Contractors and other corporations that do business with the city should face even further restricted in order to avoid obvious conflicts of interest.

DC’s politicians have proven all too willing to take advantage of weak campaign finance regulations. But it seems as though the city is becoming sick of it. The DC council should step up, fight against this culture of corruption, and bring corporate influence over elections back from the stratosphere and down to the height of individual influence.