District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray (D) and Attorney General Irvin Nathan introduced new campaign finance reform legislation today that would, among other things, ban registered lobbyists from bundling contributions.
The bill (PDF), which includes new prohibitions on contributions by government contractors and grant recipients, would increase penalties for campaign finance violations and give the attorney general's office new prosecutorial authority for misdemeanor violations. The proposal comes after a year of persistent ethics-related headaches for the District, from the resignation of two councilmembers to an ongoing investigation of Gray's 2010 campaign.
The proposed legislation would add on to an ethics reform package the District of Columbia Council passed last year. Campaign finance reform took center stage after a series of campaign finance-related scandals this year, including a guilty plea from a woman accused of funneling more than $650,000 to a shadow campaign supporting Gray in the 2010 election. Gray has never been charged with wrongdoing.
During today's press conference, Gray did not directly address recent events surrounding his campaign, but said that he fully supports the reform proposal. "The proposal will have to stand on its merits," he said. Nathan said that efforts to reform campaign finance laws began before some of the recent scandals, but acknowledged that they do serve as part of the "background" now.
Under the proposed legislation, registered lobbyists or those acting on behalf of lobbyists would be barred from bundling, which means arranging or passing along groups of contributions to sitting officials or candidates. Other provisions include new reporting requirements for campaign contributors.
Nathan said his office consulted with local law firms, lobby shops and the American Bar Association about the bundling prohibition provision. He said the new rules were not aimed at interfering with lobbyists and others trying to get their message out, noting that lobbyists could still make individual contributions and that the proposal didn't alter the maximum allowable contribution.
The proposal would give the attorney general's office the same enforcement teeth to prosecute misdemeanor violations as the U.S. attorney's office, although only federal prosecutors would continue to handle felony crimes. Misdemeanor charges for a campaign finance law violation would carry a maximum penalty of a $5,000 fine or 6 months in prison (but not both), while felony charges for a knowing violation of campaign finance laws would carry a maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine, five years in prison, or both.
Nathan said that the proposal "contemplates coordination" between his office and the U.S. attorney's office as far as deciding which office would prosecute misdemeanor cases.
Individuals or companies with contracts or grants with the city that exceed $250,000 would be barred under the proposed legislation from contributing to any elected official or candidate who would be involved in the approval process for a period of time. They would also be barred from contributing to any entity where an elected official or candidate holds a significant financial interest.
The attorney general's office is accepting public comment on the proposed legislation through September 17, when the mayor will formally submit it to the council for consideration.
National Law Journal photo by Diego M. Radzinschi.