D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and the city’s attorney general unveiled a long-awaited proposal on Tuesday to curtail pay-to-play politics in the city, including a ban on contributions from contractors who do business with the city.
The mayor’s proposal has been hinted at since spring and is designed to limit the influence of corporation and lobbyists who support the city’s decision-makers financially on the campaign trail. It also requires greater disclosure of campaign finances and strengthens penalties for those who flout the law, officials said.
The ability of corporations and top power brokers to contribute to politicians is a key point of contention on the national stage. But it resonates locally because a federal probe has accused a city contractor of injecting at least $650,000 in unreported funds to Mr. Gray’s 2010 campaign. The accusations put Mr. Gray in the unusual position of touting reform even as his latest bid for office faces intense scrutiny.
D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan said work on the legislation began before a key contributor to Mr. Gray’s campaign pleaded guilty to assisting a “shadow campaign” and culling straw donors for the 2010 campaign.
“I don’t think the most useful thing is to evaluate me or anyone else in the course of this,” Mr. Gray said, adding later, “I think it’s one of the most important issues that we face in the city at this stage. I’m going to do everything I can to see that it’s adopted.”
Among its key reforms, the legislation would require corporations that contribute to a candidate to identify all of its subsidiaries, affiliates and controlling shareholders. Contributions from a business would count against the amount that is personally donated by the business owner, so the person cannot circumvent caps on donations through LLCs.
The bill also prohibits lobbyists from bundling contributions on behalf of a candidate, money order contributions can no longer exceed $25 and candidates must certify that their committees have made every effort to comply with the law.
“The candidate cannot claim willful blindness,” Mr. Nathan said.
Many of the reforms echo developments at city hall over the last year, which has been marred by scandal or at least the appearance of impropriety on multiple occasions.
Federal prosecutors say a contractor, widely believed to be Jeffrey E. Thompson, injected undocumented funds into Mr. Gray’s campaign and reimbursed a network of associates for their contributions so he could maximize his financial influence.
Mr. Gray’s reforms will be sent to the D.C. Council when its members return from recess this fall. Seven members of the body will be listed on the Nov. 6 ballot and will likely be raising and spending campaign money while they vet the legislation.
“I think that’s all the better time to do it,” Mr. Nathan said.
The reform package parallels an aggressive effort known as Initiative 70 to ban direct corporate donations to the District’s political campaigns, although the D.C. Board of Elections shot down volunteers’ request to put the question before voters on the Nov. 6 ballot. The group, D.C. Public Trust, has appealed the decision because it believes the board miscounted the number of valid signatures on their petition for ballot access.
Mr. Gray’s more nuanced reforms are based on best practices in some states and attempts to level the playing field for non-incumbents who run for office in the District, while protecting the constitutional right of corporations and other organizations to donate to campaigns in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that uphold free speech, Mr. Nathan testified June 25 at a hearing before the council’s Committee on Government Operations.
Mr. Nathan said his office spoke to lobbyists, attorneys, former city lawmakers and campaign managers to build a “broad consensus” about what needed to change in the District.
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Tom Howell Jr. covers politics for The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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