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In March, when the D.C. Council stripped the mayor of his power to appoint the new director of the Office of Campaign Finance (OCF), local election watchdogs welcomed the move. OCF has been investigating campaign violations by Mayor Marion Barry for almost a year. Many activists, who’d cringed at the prospect of Barry choosing a crony to run the office, breathed a sigh of relief.

But they may have relaxed too soon.

Under the new law, authored by Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil, the supposedly independent Board of Elections and Ethics has assumed the power to appoint the new OCF head. On May 30, the board used its new authority to name Melvin Doxie to a six-year term as director. Given the conflicted history of Doxie and the board, the selection is raising serious questions about OCF’s freedom from mayoral interference.

As many District-watchers know, Doxie has been serving as OCF’s acting director for six months. Barry nominated him to the post. Since taking the job, Doxie has been struggling with investigations of the mayor’s 1994 campaign and the pro-Barry Washington Business PAC. Sources in OCF say that staffers have complained about Doxie’s dictatorial management style.

When the council changed the law, it gave the Board of Elections and Ethics until June 1 to pick Doxie’s successor. According to council staffers, lawmakers expected the three-member board both to conduct a national search and to replace Doxie. Instead, the board simply voted to offer the acting director a full term.

Board General Counsel William Lewis says the three members did not have enough time to conduct a full search. Besides, Lewis says, Doxie has proven himself capable of doing the job in his stint as acting director.

But rather than insulating the OCF director from mayoral meddling, the board’s appointment of Doxie seems to have compounded the problem. By naming Doxie, the members of the Board of Elections may have been guarding their own jobs—all three depend on mayoral goodwill to keep their board posts. Valerie Burden’s board term expired in July 1993. Chairman Ben Wilson’s term expired in July 1994. And Norma Leftwich’s term ends next month. Each is patiently waiting for a reappointment from Barry.

According to Lewis, the board members pointed out their tenuous positions in an April letter to the council. In the letter, the board asked the council to extend its deadline by 90 days, a delay that would have permitted board members to pick a new director after being reappointed by Barry. Lewis says the council never answered the letter, forcing the board to meet the June 1 deadline. Councilmember Brazil, who oversees the elections board and OCF, says he never received the letter.

At least two board members may feel another obligation to Barry. Wilson’s law firm recently received the city contract to conduct the environmental impact study for the proposed downtown arena. And Leftwich is married to attorney Willie Leftwich, whose firm was just hired to represent the District before the Security Exchange Commission. Doxie, too, has a questionable link to those who named him director: Before he joined OCF, he worked for Willie Leftwich.

These potential conflicts of interest irritate Brazil, who says he’s not pleased that the good intentions of his bill are going wrong. The council must approve Doxie’s selection with 45 days, and a failure to act would cancel Doxie’s appointment and force the board to start the process over. According to Brazil, the council might reject Doxie, then require the Board of Elections and Ethics to conduct a national search for another OCF director.