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It was anticlimactic, to say the least, when earlier this week the beleaguered Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) finally released copies of the secret agreements it struck with several election committees, including the one that helped Marion Barry regain the mayor’s office. The content of the agreements was almost banal; what proved more enlightening was what they showed OCF had failed to do.
Release of the documents came only after Washington City Paper filed a Freedom of Information Act request demanding the records be made public and WRC-TV’s Tom Sherwood lodged some vocal complaints. Acting OCF Director Victor Sterling had claimed he was unable to release the documents because the terms of the agreements guaranteed confidentiality. Elections board Chairman Benjamin Wilson disagreed.
“Beyond the fact that there is no statutory basis for restricting access to this information, it is our view that public disclosure is the linchpin of effective campaign finance enforcement and is critical to the integrity of the electoral process,” Wilson said in a Jan. 26 letter to Sterling ordering the release of the materials.
Sterling’s recalcitrance helped fuel long-standing accusations that OCF fails to perform objective investigations whenever the mayor is involved—hardly surprising, since the OCF director is a mayoral appointee, creating if nothing else the appearance of a conflict of interest. Critics also contend that the agency has been a paper tiger, coddling election-law violators instead of levying the maximum sanctions.
The latest agreements seem to bear that out. The one made with the Barry for Mayor in ’94 Committee, for example, states “that sufficient evidence exists constituting violations” of the city’s campaign finance laws and conflict-of-interest laws restricting consultation with private political action committees (PACs). But those violations are never itemized. And OCF permitted the Barry committee to skirt culpability by “neither admitting nor denying” the violations, and simply agreeing to pay a total of $1,600 for four “unspecified” infractions.
The preferential treatment of the mayor-elect contrasted starkly with OCF’s handling of the violations by the Sharon Pratt Kelly Committee and the Friends of D.C. (the PAC backing Kelly), each of which was fined $300 for exceeding campaign donation limits—a violation spelled out in the document.
In the case of the Washington Business PAC—the private committee with which Barry consulted—OCF specifically states what the violations were: sharing office space, sharing personnel (campaign field coordinator Luanner Peters), and producing a brochure soliciting contributions to the Barry committee. Still, the business PAC was also allowed to weasel out of responsibility for the violations—“neither admitting nor denying” them—while paying the aforementioned fines.
Not only did OCF’s Sterling provide the oil for the four election committees to slide through the investigation process, he declined to bring the maximum punishment to bear. According to District law, both the Barry committee and the business PAC each could have been fined a $500 penalty for each violation. Moreover, Sterling could have referred the cases to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for possible criminal prosecution.
D.C. Councilmember Harold Brazil, whose Committee on Government Operations oversees OCF, is seething over the agency’s handling of the entire matter. He plans to scrutinize OCF’s behavior in a public round-table on Feb. 10. A Brazil spokesman says the conciliation agreements do not go far enough, and it appears the attorneys for the committees “did an end run around” Sterling. Brazil wants Sterling at the hearing—so much that he has threatened to subpoena him if necessary.
Peter Montgomery, chairman of Common Cause/D.C., calls the entire affair “outrageous.” He says the agreements do not provide an opportunity for the public to evaluate “how serious the investigation was and how appropriate the fines are.” In addition to helping to write legislation to reform city campaign finance laws, Montgomery says his organization plans to examine the structural relationship between the elections board and OCF.
“They’re not serving [taxpayer] interests,” Montgomery insists.
If, as some critics contend, Sterling was more concerned with trying to protect his future boss from embarrassment than he was with enforcing D.C. election laws, his efforts went for naught. No sooner were the agreements released than Barry replaced Sterling, who was well over the 90-day limit imposed by law on temporary appointments. After that time period, an acting administrator must either be named permanently to the position or District funds may no longer be used to pay his or her salary. Sterling was named to his post in April 1994 following the arrest of former OCF Director Robert Lane for possession of crack cocaine.
During negotiations, lawyers representing the Barry election committee reportedly confronted Sterling with the fact that he was running the agency beyond his legal authority, and were able to use this weakness to their advantage. City hall sources say it was Sterling who initiated discussions regarding keeping the agreements confidential. Barry’s lawyers did, however, apparently push to have specific charges removed from the agreement. The final documents illustrate the level of their success.
Frederick Cooke, the attorney who represented the Barry committee, could not be reached for comment. Sterling did not return telephone calls to his office.
The new head of OCF is lawyer Melvin Doxie, whose nomination indicates Barry may still be looking for protection. Doxie is the law partner of the mayor’s longtime friend Willie Leftwich. And Leftwich’s wife, Norma, is a member of the elections board, which has some administrative oversight over OCF.