At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds
At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds is facing questions about her recent appearance at a virtual forum. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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Our new, Zoom-based reality can be tricky for D.C. lawmakers to navigate: Just ask Vince Gray. But a video call drawing accusations of election impropriety? That’s a new one.

The Zoom call in question was a virtual candidates forum organized last month by D.C. for Democracy that featured eight of the 11 candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in the at-large Council race. Naturally, all eyes were on incumbent Councilmember Anita Bonds, broadly considered a heavy favorite given her long history in D.C. politics and the size of the crowded field splitting the vote.

And as more people started watching the beginning of Bonds’ appearance, seemingly via phone based on the vertical orientation and the generally off-center quality of her video, her background started looking familiar. Anyone who’s spent enough time inside a Council office knows the Wilson Building when they see it, and Bonds’ background seemed to fit the bill.

A screenshot of At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds’ initial appearance at a virtual candidates’ forum. Credit: YouTube

Some viewers began pointing this out right away on Twitter, wondering whether it’s appropriate for a lawmaker to make a campaign appearance from their government office. And at least one went a step further, filing a complaint with the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability on Feb. 22 about Bonds’ move. It alleges she violated the District’s law barring the commingling of political and official functions by government employees, known as the local Hatch Act due to its similarities to its federal counterpart.

Neither Bonds nor her campaign staff responded to LL’s questions about where she was when she joined the forum. But compare images from her background with other photos inside her office and it sure looks like a match. Bonds later re-joined the meeting from a computer and blurred her background, but even then, it has every appearance of a Council office.

A screenshot of At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds’ appearance at a virtual candidates’ forum, after re-joining from a computer. Credit: YouTube

Ashley Cooks, the head of the Office of Government Ethics, says she can’t discuss any complaints that her office receives. But she notes that any complaint making an argument about the local Hatch Act is probably barking up the wrong tree. Incredibly, councilmembers and the mayor aren’t bound by those rules, even though they draw a government salary. Such are the perks of writing the law.

But Cooks cautions that such an appearance could still violate campaign finance rules, which bar the use of “government resources” for election-related activities. A spokesperson for D.C.’s Office of Campaign Finance said “the office will not speculate as to whether a possible violation has occurred without additional information” and that “at this stage we have no evidence that further inquiry is necessary.”

If Bonds did indeed use her office for a campaign appearance, it seems to make logical sense that it amounts to the use of a government resource to promote her candidacy. Wilson Building Wi-Fi and Bonds’ government-issued devices would also count as public resources. But who knows what the lawyers might say. Surely, the law’s authors never anticipated such a thing as a virtual forum becoming part of the political process.

The dust-up is perhaps best understood as yet another time D.C. officials have shown a general lack of care for ethics rules (if not outright contempt for them). Would it really have been so hard for Bonds to call into the forum from somewhere else? She owns a charming row home in Truxton Circle, records show, that could make for an ideal Zoom setting.

Such a misstep is far from the end of the world, and many of the people to make the biggest hay of the issue are likely some of her harshest critics.

But then again, if she hadn’t used said forum to argue for a new football stadium on the RFK campus or oppose the reinstatement of the vaccine mandate, maybe she wouldn’t have quite so many detractors ready to pounce on her mistakes.