Did or did not Mayor Marion Barry’s election committee violate the city’s eampaign finance laws during the September primary? That was the hot question around town this week in the wake of a press release from the Office of Campaign Finance (OCF), the city agency charged with enforcing the District’s election laws, announcing that it had concluded its investigation into alleged campaign improprieties.
Apparently there was some finding warranting OCF action, since the press release indicated an agreement had been reached with the Barry committee. Incredibly, though, OCF refused to reveal any details of the agreement. What the press release also failed to note was that, without inquiries made the previous week by Washington City Paper, OCF’s outrageous behavior might still be a well-kept secret.
“Part of the conciliation agreement is that we cannot release the ruling to the public,” says Jeanne Diggs, special assistant to OCF Director Victor Sterling, adding improbably, “The public interest has been served.”
Diggs spoke with Washington City Paper only after several days of calling elicited no response from Sterling, who originally promised a decision in the Barry matter by Dec. 9, 1994. Charges of possible campaign and election violations by then-candidate Barry had surfaced shortly after the Sept. 8, 1994, primary, when sources inside the Barry campaign alleged cash payments had been made to poll workers (see “Cashing In on Weak Campaign Finance Laws,” The District Line, 10/7/94). Reports also surfaced that in violation of city law, the Barry committee talked to a private group, the Washington Business Political Action Committee (WBPAC), about dividing up campaign expenses. District laws require that independent PAC expenditures be made without consultation with the candidate.
There were also troubling questions regarding how much money Barry buddy Rock Newman had contributed and independently spent during the campaign. Newman told Newsweek he spent $13,000; he told the Washington Post the amount was more like $50,000; and he told Washington City Paper he spent “nothing.” Campaign finance reports filed with the OCF show that Newman made a $15,000 contribution to WBPAC. According to an OCF spokesperson, the agency has yet to investigate Newman’s expenditures for the campaign, as well as the allegations regarding walking-around money.
The day after the interview with Diggs, OCF suddenly released a two-page statement announcing that it had closed its file on the investigation of Barry’s committee and the business PAC. The agency, charged with monitoring political campaigns, activities of lobbyists, and violations of the city’s conflict-of-interest laws, not only drew a veil of secrecy over its findings, but tried to shift the blame onto the legislation that created its mandate.
“OCF urges the citizens of the District and the D.C. Council to carefully assess the merits of Initiative 41 in view of its purpose and impact on the political process,” the agency exhorted, whining earlier in the release that “the use of innovative methods of funding campaigns has caused an escalation in the number of required filings with the OCF…the resulting increase in political activity [has] placed a severe strain on the limited resources of the OCF.”
The decision to withhold information from the public angered D.C. Councilmember Harold Brazil, who put out a press release of his own chiding the agency. As chairman of the Committee on Government Operations, which oversees the OCF, Brazil had already asked the D.C. Auditor to conduct his own investigation into OCF’s handling of complaints and the overall management of the agency.
Dorothy Brizill, a Ward 1 activist and ethics advocate, says the OCF secret agreement is just one more indication that something drastic needs to be done to reform both the agency and city campaign finance laws.
“I’ve never heard of any record ever being sealed. Who are they protecting?” asks an obviously frustrated Brizill. “Victor Sterling never ceases to amaze me. Every time I think he’s shot himself in the foot, he comes back and shoots the other foot.”