Tom Sherwood's Notebook: 6/15/11

By Tom Sherwood
|  Tuesday, Jun 14, 2011  |  Updated 2:20 PM EDT
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Sherwood's Notebook: Ethics for Dummies

D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr.

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On Kojo Nnamdi’s “The Politics Hour” Friday on WAMU, D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan was blunt.

"When we talk about diverting over $300,000 of District grant funds for personal use of a public official,” he said of the scandal enveloping Ward 5 D.C. Council member Harry “Tommy” Thomas, “that implicates a host of criminal statutes both in the D.C. Code and the federal criminal code.”

Nathan added, “We thought that the U.S. Attorney’s Office should examine this matter and determine whether there are criminal violations.”

Nathan also made news by saying he wished he had the authority to bring criminal charges himself in such matters. He said he’s already seeking that authority from Congress.

Nathan’s tough talk is just one shoe dropping in what could be a centipede’s worth regarding the city government’s ethics problems.

On Monday, the council took its first public stab at rewriting ethics provisions. But Committee on Government Operations and the Environment chair Mary Cheh said a new bill probably will not be ready until this fall.

Again, at this hearing, Nathan was blunt. He said the council’s proposed bill should drop provisions creating a new agency and instead strengthen offices that already exist.

Those agencies include Nathan’s office, the Office of Campaign Finance, the Office of the Inspector General and the Office of the D.C. Auditor. Cheh’s initial bill, Nathan said, “would create a redundant bureaucratic apparatus that would lead to expensive duplication of efforts, potential conflicts and unnecessary delays.”

What’s needed is clarity in the law, tougher enforcement, quicker enforcement and real consequences. But it’s hard to legislate what should be common sense.

If you use government funds -- attention Council member Thomas -- you ought to make certain they’re not used to your personal benefit.

If someone offers you cash in an envelope -- attention Council member Jim Graham -- you might say you prefer a check so you can properly report it as a donation to your constituent service fund or campaign. And that goes for cash that’s not in an envelope, too. (You have to be pretty specific in these instructions, sad to say.)

If someone in your campaign offers cash or checks to another candidate -- attention Mayor Vincent Gray -- you should dismiss that campaign staffer no matter what the reason, and have authorities make sure no law was broken.

If you want to do something on the edge, something that’s questionable or a mental tossup, you might consider how it would look in the blogosphere, on the front page of the newspapers or on a television broadcast.

Those questions would help clarify your thoughts.

We hope.

Ward 4 Council member Muriel Bowser added her own dose of common sense at Monday’s hearing.

“I think it should be clear, though, and clearly stated, that a lot of the allegations that are swirling around our District building now are already against the law,” she said. “So while we are all eager to make sure the law is strong and loopholes are closed, we must all remind ourselves that we have already have sworn an oath to be highly ethical.”

And finally, attention everyone! We’d like to add the Notebook’s observation that ethical behavior is the result of not just a set of laws but also a state of mind.

Ethics Overtakes Policing

The Notebook had said we would return this week to the subject of police power abuses in the region, but the ethics storm overtook that issue. We’re sadly certain that there will be additional opportunities to return to the subject of overly aggressive policing.

A Photo Finish

We couldn’t help but notice how the nation was captivated in recent days by two sets of photographs.

There were (and still are) the grossly personal photos of Rep. Andrew Weiner (D-N.Y.) tripping around Twitter for all to see. Weiner will come to wish that his computer had crashed before they got out. Now, it’s his career that’s crashed.

The second set was heartwarming images of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) recovering from the Arizona shootings. It’s a tough road back, and it’s clear that despite optimistic accounts, she may not make it all the way back to Congress.

At this writing, both Weiner and Giffords have said they want to return to their congressional duties.

We hope one of them succeeds.

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