Sherwood’s Notebook: Ethics. Say It Again… Ethics


On Monday, the D.C. Council solemnly gathered to render its verdict on Ward 1 member Jim Graham -- but before it did, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson was remarkably blunt.

In what amounted to a soliloquy about how political bodies work, particularly the 13-member council, Mendelson pretty much said such bodies are go-along-to-get-along societies.

"And so it's not ordinarily constructive to criticize one another, which is why there is a lot of reluctance to do that and why today is an uncomfortable day for the council," Mendelson said, barely looking up as he read his statement. "We cannot get to the issues, the important issues of policy, if we spend our times disciplining each other."

Anyone who didn't know Mendelson might think the chairman was foolish, or didn't think Graham really needed to be reprimanded. How could Mendelson be so honest about how political bodies work -- compromise, vote-trading and dealmaking?

But Mendelson was just laying the groundwork.

In the real world of politics, you have to do something really out of line, Mendelson said, to draw rebuke from the full council. "The situation has to be extraordinary," he said.

And at that point, Mendelson laid out a seven-point resolution that detailed how he thought three investigations had shown Graham had improperly co-mingled political consideration of developers vying for a city contract and a separate contract with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

"While it may be appropriate for a council member to publicly express a preference," Mendelson read, "it is not appropriate for a council member to attempt behind the scenes to say who may win a [contract] bid."

Mendelson then read from the council's rules about ethical behavior, how the members had to hold themselves to "a high level of conduct," and how they "shall refrain from taking, ordering or participating in any official action which would adversely affect the confidence of the public in the integrity of the District government."

Only Ward 8's Marion Barry spoke up for Graham. He said Graham deserved a council hearing on all the allegations. And then Barry himself was blunt about politics.

"Everybody on this council on a daily basis, a weekly basis, makes arrangements to trade votes on this or that because that's how the process works," Barry said. "I've done it. Everybody on this council has done it."

Outside of the council chamber, two potential candidates for mayor disagreed with Barry.

"It goes to the heart of what's going on with the city council in terms of a crisis of ethics and trust in the community," said Ward 6's Tommy Wells, who has formed an exploratory committee for mayor. "The idea that there's horse trading around contracts and public land should never be acceptable."

Ward 4's Muriel Bowser helped write the city's new ethics law. Although there are criticisms that it doesn't ban corporate donations, among other issues, Bowser is making ethics a key part of her preparations -- private so far -- for her own mayoral bid.

"We're going to apply the highest standards of ethics to all of our actions," she told NBC4 in her office. "In every election that I've ever been involved in, we talk about open and transparent government and leading with integrity. And should I be in another election, it won't be any different."

Now what, Jim?

Graham last week was vowing to fight a council reprimand. He was insisting that there be a full council hearing so he could defend himself. But over the weekend,Graham apparently decided

that the reprimand was the better way to go, to get the issue behind him.

In the end, Graham voted against his reprimand but extravagantly praised Mendelson.

"You are thoughtful, you are fair, you are determined to do the best thing in your mind by the council. ...And while I disagree with the conclusions you've reached, I certainly... respect the process you followed," he said.

Translation: It could have been worse.

Graham later released his own written statement, saying in part, "It's time to move on."

Graham lost oversight of alcohol issues as part of his punishment, but he remains chair of the expansive Human Services Committee. There is no fine or other punishment. "I will continue to represent the people who elected me to serve with the same passion and fervor as I have from my first day in office," the statement reads.

D.C. vote push: Last week Mendelson kicked off a campaign to get voters to approve a referendum on April 23 to free the city's budget from congressional oversight. The D.C. Budget Freedom Committee hopes to persuade Congress to allow the city to spend its own local revenues without congressional approval and to be exempt from federal shutdowns.

One drawback is that Mayor Vincent Gray and D.C. Attorney General Irving Nathan think the ballot measure potentially violates the home rule act and could aggravate Republicans who control the House rather than persuade them.

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4. Follow him on Twitter @tomsherwood.

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