City Paper is not for tourists
With six weeks left in Council period 23, D.C. lawmakers are scrambling to pass legislation before time runs out. Any bills on the table after Jan. 2 are dead and must be reintroduced. This week’s show featured Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd‘s vote on police overtime accountability, Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto‘s push back against a tax fraud bill, and three councilmembers’ opposition to legislation that allows kids as young as 11 to get vaccinated without their parents’ consent.
On a bill that requires the Metropolitan Police Department to report and explain its overtime spending to the Council, Todd does not have an opinion. Or at least, he’s not sharing it. Todd was the only councilmember who did not vote in favor of the emergency bill, which Mayor Muriel Bowser, a political ally of Todd’s, opposes. Instead of voting against it, Todd voted “present,” as in virtually in attendance, but taking no definitive stance.
The lame duck councilmember did not return LL’s text or phone call seeking an explanation. Todd lost the June primary election to Ward 4 Councilmember-elect Janeese Lewis George, who will be sworn in next year. George says she “absolutely” supports the bill.
The emergency legislation from Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau requires MPD to submit overtime spending reports to the Council every two pay periods. The reports must include the dollar amount spent on overtime year-to-date, and “a description of the staffing plan and conditions justifying the overtime pay.”
The impetus for the legislation, Nadeau explained, is MPD’s overtime bill that went $43 million over budget. Nadeau scolded Bowser for failing to notify the Council at an earlier date that MPD blew through its overtime allotment.
The Council had at least some heads up about MPD’s overtime spending as early as June. A quarterly report from CFO Jeff DeWitt raised the flag that protests related to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police put MPD’s budget $37 million in the hole. Another regular report posted the the CFO’s website breaks down agencies’ budgets versus spending. Nadeau’s bill requires a more granular look at MPD’s spending.
In a letter sent to Council offices ahead of the vote, Bowser wrote that the police overtime costs that sparked the bill are typically reimbursed by the federal government. The cost of policing demonstrations throughout the summer far exceeded the $18 million allocated to the District. So far requests for reimbursement have gone unanswered, Bowser’s letter said.
At a minimum, Bowser wrote, the bill should distinguish between overtime costs that are reimbursable from the feds and overtime costs associated local activity. “Failure to differentiate between these different types of overtime costs will only serve to cause more confusion and, inevitably, lead to policy debates based on bad information,” Bowser wrote.
Other councilmembers had this to say in support:
Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie: “I think [the bill is] going to help improve transparency in police spending. … I think transparency can be a useful tool to help drive change.”
Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, who showed a video on his phone of MPD officers removing protest signs from a fence: “That’s not a good use of tax dollars at a time like this. I stand with you, Councilmember Nadeau, to try to figure out how to use our resources in the District of Columbia for our residents.”
At-Large Councilmember Robert White: “$43 million in overtime spending without the Council knowing this is happening, or taxpayers knowing this is happening, because this is taxpayer money, is unacceptable. But [the bill] also allows us to keep a better hold on the way that we are seeing policing of protests.”
The bill passed on an emergency basis, which means it’s only in effect for 90 days if Bowser signs it. LL expects the bill’s provisions to appear in a permanent bill before the Council period ends.
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh‘s bill on tax fraud evoked new alliances.
At-Large Councilmembers Robert White and David Grosso, along with McDuffie and Trayon White, joined Pinto, who led the opposition. Chairman Phil Mendelson joined Cheh as the most outspoken champions.
The False Claims Amendment Act of 2019 would allow private entities to bring lawsuits against tax cheats who make at least $1 million in revenue or taxable income and whose alleged tax fraud amounts to at least $350,000. The Chief Financial Officer and the Council’s lawyer disagree about whether the bill is legally sufficient.
Pinto, who worked as a tax attorney in the Office of the Attorney General before her election to the Council, argued that the District already has a framework in place to address tax fraud. The Office of Tax and Revenue monitors a hotline where private parties can report fraud, and two sections in the OAG pursue such cases, she says. Mendelson rebuffed her informal request to postpone the first vote on the bill, and her formal motion to table the vote failed.
Robert White worried that the bill would inadvertently create a cottage industry of law firms that prey on local businesses. The law allows private entities who bring the suits to collect between 15 and 30 percent of the amount recovered, if the case is successful. Whistleblowers who report fraud on OTR’s hotline can get 10 percent.
“If our agencies, the CFO and OAG, are not pursuing these claims then that speaks more to incompetence of our government than anything else,” White said. “And so we may be looking in the wrong place for a solution.”
Mendelson, perplexed by his colleagues’ resistance, argued that the bill gives the District another tool to collect unpaid taxes. Cheh, equally confounded, echoed Mendelson’s arguments and added that D.C. allows private parties to file lawsuits in other areas such as Medicaid fraud.
“These frauds that we’re talking about are not inadvertent. They’re intentional of a high amount of money,” Cheh said. “I don’t know why we wouldn’t want this additional tool. It’s a fraud against all of us.”
The bill passed 8-5 and is expected to come up for a second reading before the end of December.
Councilmembers Trayon White, Robert White, and McDuffie voted against a bill that gives children as young as 11 the right to get vaccinated without a parents’ consent.
“Permitting a minor to receiving a vaccine presents a danger to children and disregards a parent’s authority to make healthcare decisions in the best interest of their child,” said Trayon White, whose household includes a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old. “I can’t imagine them making healthcare decisions about their lives based on the decisions they make each and every day.”
Trayon White’s previous comments on vaccines drew backlash earlier this year. But his skepticism is perhaps representative of some of his constituents.
“I have received an outpouring of support in my dissent for this bill,” he said. “But nonetheless people are questioning the Council’s authority to use what seems to be dictatorship powers to take away parental consent through the law.”
Robert White was unavailable for comment before publication. McDuffie did not respond to LL’s requests for an explanation of his opposition.