Former D.C. ethics director Rochelle Ford Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Rochelle Ford, director of the District’s Office of Government Ethics, resigned last week. She’s taking a new job with the Universities Space Research Association, a nonprofit focused on space-related science and engineering, as its vice president of corporate affairs and governance. She’ll also serve as USRA’s chief ethics and compliance officer and chair of the organization’s compliance committee.

Ashley Cooks, a supervising attorney at the Office of Government Ethics, will fill in as the acting director, Ford says.

As OGE’s third director, Ford spearheaded an ethics education campaign for District government employees and clamped down on unpaid fines. The Board of Ethics and Government Accountability collected $19,604 in fines in fiscal year 2020, according to its response to the D.C. Council’s annual oversight questions, and has already collected more than $60,000 in fiscal year 2021, which ends in September.

“BEGA was never good about collecting money owed to it,” Ford says.

Speaking of unpaid fines, Ford negotiated the largest settlement in the agency’s short existence. Last May, BEGA, which oversees OGE, announced a $35,000 settlement with former Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans over his mixing of Council business with his private consulting firm. Evans said he had a “mistaken understanding” of the ethics rules, though the settlement makes note of the lawyer and former lawmaker’s “extensive tenure on the Council, legal training, original support for the Ethics Act, and his obligation” to obey the laws and regulations for government employees.

Evans paid $2,000 of the fine, which comes due in full next month. He remains delinquent on a separate $20,000 fine from BEGA related to emails he and his staff sent to lobbying firms from his Council account. The Office of the Attorney General is negotiating payment from Evans to avoid filing suit in court. Ford believes the case will settle.

Ford says Evans’ case is a prime example of why the District needs comprehensive ethics reform and that she was frustrated with the lack of political will to get it done during her tenure. She believes an ethics commission tasked with studying the issue and how it should look in D.C. could move the ball forward.

“I hope the District’s efforts at ethics reform will finally pick up on the momentum it ought to,” she says, adding that if D.C. is going to become a state “we don’t want to be all bootleg” with the ethics rules.

BEGA chair Norma Hutcheson says Ford brought a needed outsider’s perspective to the agency during a difficult time.

Ford succeeded Brent Wolfingbarger, who resigned at the end of 2019 following backlash from an untold number of complaints that went unaddressed.

“We’ll survive and thrive,” Hutcheson says. “We’ve got a phenomenal staff in large part because she put things in place.”

Ford says the agency is in good hands with Cooks. BEGA’s board members will ultimately decide who to appoint as the permanent director. Hutcheson declined to comment on the search for Ford’s permanent replacement. Cooks did not immediately reply to an email seeking comment.

“Ashley is well regarded throughout the whole District for her knowledge,” Ford says. “She should continue to follow her strengths. She knows ethics inside and out. She should continue to develop her expertise and push forward with her own ideas to reform the office. And I encourage her to continue to be firm.”