States of Disclosure

Published — September 24, 2009 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

D.C. council passes ethics code, but does it pass our ethics survey?

Introduction

Earlier this week the District of Columbia Council unanimously approved emergency legislation to establish the city’s first “Code of Official Conduct.” Chairman Vincent C. Gray proposed the measure to set “unusually high standards of honesty, integrity, impartiality” and ultimately prevent conflicts of interest. Council member — and former mayor — Marion Barry, who recently came under fire for allegedly awarding a city contract to his girlfriend, thanked Gray for introducing the measure even though “all of us have followed [the rules] anyway.”

According to Doxie McCoy, Gray’s director of communications, the new measure pulls the most pertinent titles from already-established ethics rules and for the first time places them under the council’s rules of organization. The new code also gives the body’s ethics counsel official authority to issue advisory opinions. This is an “interim step,” McCoy said, and the council still needs to work out a process for sanctions, but “there’s no time line because we don’t want to rush through it.”

We’ve never counted the District among our rankings for States of Disclosure, but, like 47 other states, public officials were already required to report outside financial interests. Now, in the wake of this new code of conduct, we got to thinking — where does our nation’s capital fall on the transparency scale?

The District’s current financial disclosure laws and form — neither of which have been updated since 1974 — require the basics: names of employers, positions as an officer or director, and listings of real estate property and investment holdings. But besides the name of the company, and maybe its address, there’s not much else to fill out.

District officials do not have to report how much they are receiving from any of these entities (only for liabilities, which doesn’t factor into our survey). They are also not required to give any financial information about their spouse unless, as the forms dictate, the “property is jointly titled.”

After a look at the disclosure form juxtaposed against top-tier states like Louisiana or Washington, we estimate that the District would likely fail our survey. It’s unclear whether the new code will change any of that — the measure seems more focused on formalizing the ethical guidelines already in place. But even that is, as Barry says, “a step forward.”

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