Among the issues likely to drag on deep into the D.C. Council legislative session is campaign finance reform. Particularly in light of the controversy around Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, the vestiges of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s FreshPAC controversy, and her receipt of $31,500 in contributions over the legal limit.
Those discussions are likely to focus on the Office of Campaign Finance, which is as much under the microscope as Todd’s campaign. Yet OCF is the only body that is doing anything to get to the bottom of the Todd matter—two years in the making—and is still dithering with a formal complaint Public Citizen filed in March about excess contributions to the Bowser campaign.
At the Wilson Building this week, Loose Lips was met mostly with blank stares and bland deflections. And no wonder. As the agency that is expected to investigate and enforce campaign finance laws, OCF is subject to oversight from the very body whose members it is charged with regulating. Which makes for good lip service.
“I’ve always thought that the Office of Campaign Finance could be more aggressive in pursuing allegations of wrongdoing, misconduct, and it should also be more proactive,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson says. “We’re hoping to look at reforms more broadly,” says one council staffer, “but can we get something in place in time for the next election?”
Good question. And what about some clarity on Todd’s acceptance of more than $100,000 in improperly documented contributions? Or his inability to explain his largest campaign expenditures in 2015 and 2016, totaling $200,000 to the same shadowy consultants. “That’s a sensitive issue,” the staffer says. “It’s hard to discern whether it’s some sort of conspiracy versus general sloppiness or incompetence.”
Public Citizen government affairs lobbyist Craig Holman says D.C. needs not just an OCF overhaul but also an independent agency to probe campaign finance activities like Todd’s. And the D.C. agency best positioned to undertake such inquiries is the Office of Attorney General, Holman says.
“Todd’s campaign is a prime example of the need to improve enforcement of campaign finance law, but also an example of OCF not doing its job,” Holman says. “OCF needs to be restructured, and we might well have the opportunity to do it this session.” Holman, who is working with At-Large Councilmember David Grosso on a reform bill, adds, “This also would be an ideal opportunity for [Attorney General] Karl Racine to step in and deal with this through more authoritative action.”
Racine’s office confirms that it is examining the D.C. Code to determine whether it has the independent authority to bring a misdemeanor case against Todd. (OAG does not have jurisdiction to prosecute felonies.) But Racine is circumspect about his intentions. “I do not want to do or say anything that could cause the public to question the integrity and fairness of any inquiry by OAG or any other law enforcement agency,” he says.
There is precedent for such involvement. Racine’s predecessor Irvin Nathan cooperated with the federal criminal investigation of the notorious shadow campaign that tainted Vince Gray’s 2010 mayoral election, and legal sources point to a statute that requires the OAG to notify the U.S. Attorney’s office if it intends to prosecute and to collaborate with that office on any case that it brings so that neither is subject to double jeopardy.
Other options available to Racine are to stand aside to let U.S. Attorney Channing Phillips handle the matter, or to join forces through a provision that allows Phillips to deputize OAG lawyers to work on felony cases as special prosecutors under his purview.
This would allow the D.C. Council to take its time with campaign finance reform and restructure the OCF while independent agencies with subpoena power sink their teeth into Todd’s finances, pronto. (At least three reform bills have been introduced this session, including one Racine is pushing, and the 2018 election season could be well underway before any new laws are enacted. OAG spokesman Rob Marus says Racine’s legislation is aimed at tougher restrictions on campaign activity but that Racine also supports public campaign financing “to get big money out of politics for good and take the color of corruption away.”)
Meanwhile, Racine makes no effort to hide his conviction that the public deserves answers about Todd’s campaign. He appeared on News Channel 8 last week and fielded questions from host Armstrong Williams about Brandon Todd. Asked what he said during the interview, which was not available for viewing at press time, Racine recalls saying that “any lawyer worth his salt would advise him to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, ASAP, because, as the religious folks say, the truth shall reveal itself.”
He added, “The coverup is always worse than the crime.”