October 27, 2018

How bad is Ward 6 D.C. Council member Charles Allen’s omnibus campaign finance bill now making its way through the council? Let me count the ways.


It would hold political candidates liable for the debts held by their campaign committees. Then it would limit the time they would have to pay off those financial obligations, according to a report on the legislation approved by the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, which is chaired by Allen.


Moreover, the bill would bar lobbyists from bundling contributions for campaign committees. However, lobbyists could go hog-wild gathering funds for political action committees and independent expenditure committees.


Is that distinction Allen’s bow to labor unions who want to raise as much money as possible, unimpeded, to influence elected officials? Why are unions better than contractors? And why is the work of lobbyists bundling for the committees of individual candidates somehow dirtier than bundling for PACs?


Then, there is the previously discussed discriminatory prohibition on contributions to political campaigns for mayor or attorney general from individual business persons seeking or holding a contract worth $250,000 or more, with a less stringent standard for donations to council candidates based on the types of contracts that are subject to legislative review. Don’t confuse contractors with grantees, however; the latter would be able to crash the donation barrier.

Allen’s masterpiece — the Campaign Finance Reform Amendment Act of 2018 — is a mess. It is riddled with conflicting policies, sets out to fix things that aren’t broken, and offers solutions that, if approved by the full council, could lead to even more complications or shenanigans.


Consider the committee’s decision to create a Campaign Finance Board (CFB). Really?! The last thing the city needs is yet another board. Most people who have tracked the Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) for decades, as Dorothy Brizill has, know that what ails that agency is its lackluster leadership.


“It’s a rudderless agency, and it’s been rudderless for some time,” said Brizill, the founding director of DC Watch, a government watchdog organization.


Brizill raised concerns about the quality and composition of the current OCF staff, as well as the way the employees administer and enforce the District’s existing campaign finance laws. Citing specific examples, she asserted that an “undue burden is put on citizens to monitor and investigate violations of the law,” and that fines and penalties are insufficient to deter bad actors.


“I don’t think [Allen’s] legislation effectively addresses those problems,” Brizill added.

The OCF “administers and enforces DC laws pertaining to campaign finance operations, legal defense committees, transition and inaugural committees, constituent services and statehood funds,” according to its website. It reportedly has 30 funded positions. Currently, it is headed by Cecily Collier-Montgomery and supervised by the Board of Elections (BOE).


Allen argued during an interview with me that he was motivated to establish a new board because no one on the BOE actually has campaign finance experience. Wait, wait — didn’t he just push through the reappointment of Michael Bennett as BOE chair, knowing he lacked such expertise?


In fact, the judiciary committee’s report acknowledges that during the confirmation hearing, Bennett noted as much. Moreover, it also was clear that “none of the current Board members have a background in campaign finance law, policy, or technology.” The committee report called it a “troubling deficiency, given the impending effective date of the Fair Elections Program,” which establishes a system of public funding for political campaigns.  


Instead of moving to alter the composition of the BOE, Allen has decided to propose a new board consisting of five members who would be “appointed by the Mayor with the advice and consent of the Council.” His committee report noted that the “restructuring will allow the new CFB to thrive.”


“Though the issues surrounding elections and campaign finance are undeniably connected, the committee believes that the District will benefit greatly from a CFB able to provide specific campaign finance-related support, expertise, and vision,” the report says.


Each member of the new campaign board would receive an annual stipend of $12,500; the chairman would pull in $26,500. Taxpayers would be on the hook for $76,500 a year.  


Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt said in a fiscal statement that there is no money in the current budget and financial plan for any of the provisions included in the reform bill — the price tag of which is more than $4 million. The reform package, as passed by the judiciary committee, would require setting up new databases and hiring additional personnel, including auditors, technology specialists and attorneys at the OCF, the Board of Elections and the Office of Contracting and Procurement.  


A spokesperson for Allen said that the council member expects to secure the necessary funds in the upcoming budget. The new Campaign Finance Board would not begin its work until November 2020, according to the chief financial officer’s fiscal analysis.


Perhaps the real impetus for Allen’s move to establish a new board was a comment made by Aquene Freechild, co-director of Public Citizen’s Democracy Is for People Campaign. She testified at a public hearing in March that the Campaign Finance Office needed to become an “energetic regulator that is committed to transparency, clear communication, and fairness.” She also said the agency needed to experience a “significant cultural shift and increase in activity at OCF.”

Oddly, Allen has said the omnibus law will ensure the voice of District residents would be heard over that of special interests. I guess he didn’t mean Public Citizen.


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