by Andy McCoy, Contributor
Voters in Washington, DC recently enacted three charter amendments relating to ethics. Amendment V, which passed with 85% support, would allow the DC Council to expel a member by a 5/6 vote if the Council could demonstrate a gross failure to meet the highest standards of conduct. Amendments VI and VII, which both passed with over 75% support, would disqualify felons from holding a Council seat or the Mayor’s office. Amendments VI and VII are both limited in scope as they only disqualify individuals that were convicted of a felony while holding the office. This would have the effect of immediately expelling a Mayor or Council member upon conviction for any felony and also barring the individual from holding that particular office again. Interestingly a Council member convicted while serving on the Council would not be disqualified from serving as Mayor and vice versa. These Amendments would also fail to bar candidates who resigned before conviction from holding the same office again in the future.
Amendments VI and VII seem to be a step in a harsher direction for the treatment of felons in the DC electoral process. DC is one of the few states that allow felons to vote. The DC Code disqualifies currently incarcerated felons from casting a ballot, but it does not continue that disqualification upon release. This treatment was likely influenced by recent political scandals, namely the criminal convictions of two DC Council members and the ethics investigation into another Council member.
The real test of these amendments will come over the next few elections. It would seem that Amendments VI and VII are designed to prevent unethical political practices from those holding elected office. This seems logical as office holders who are convicted of a felony would seem more likely to be convicted of a felony that is a corruption analog. The amendments are overbroad when compared with the likely goal, though it is unlikely that DC residents will be concerned with ejecting elected officials convicted of a felony that is not a corruption analog.
At least Amendments VI and VII have built in triggering mechanisms as the DC criminal justice system will determine when a felony has been committed. In contrast, Amendment VII places all the authority to eject a Council member who has grossly failed to meet the highest standards of conduct in the hands of the Council itself. This could be a problem as not one of DC’s elected officials asked the Board of Ethics to initiate an investigation into the suspected sale of a vote for a vendor on a Metro project. If alleged bribery, along with misuse of city personnel and the failure to report an attempted bribe, were not sufficient for a single Council member to ask for an investigation into the Board of Directors Chairman, then what can DC residents really expect when the Council is asked to investigate one of its own? It seems more likely that this new authority will lie dormant until a sufficient political rivalry appears, at which point it will be used to embarrass elected officials, though it is doubtful that any Council members will be ejected any time soon.
Voters in DC may have voted for ethics in DC politics, but the amendments seem unlikely to accomplish voters’ noble desires. If DC voters truly want ethical politician the true responsibility lies in the electoral process. Educating the electorate on the histories of each candidate is far more likely to prevent undesirable officials than any of these amendments.