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Council member looks to ban corporate gifts to city campaigns

D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, who represents Ward 3, introduced a bill Tuesday to implement stricter campaign finance rules in the city. Hatchet File Photo

This post was written by Hatchet reporter Brianna Gurciullo.

D.C. Council member and GW Law School professor Mary Cheh proposed a bill Tuesday to ban corporate donations to city campaigns and set more stringent campaign finance guidelines.

The Campaign Finance Reform Amendment Act of 2012 would prohibit financial contributions toward political campaigns from corporations and from those who own 10 percent of a business and have a contract with the city.

“People are going to have to work harder to raise money,” Kiara Pesante, director of communications for Cheh’s office, said. “They’re going to have to do more grassroots work and rely on more everyday people to get money.”

D.C. campaign finance rules allow businesses and corporations to contribute to city political funds under the same limitations for individuals, ranging from $25 to $2,000 based on the position. Federal guidelines prohibit direct corporate funding of political campaigns and candidates.

The committee to re-elect Cheh in 2010 to represent Ward 3 – which includes American University, Foxhall and Chevy Chase – collected about $175,000. About $55,000 of those funds came from businesses and corporations.

The proposed measure would also forbid fundraisers who collect more than $10,000 from receiving city contracts, leases or appointments within two years of gathering the money.

Pesante said nonprofits are included under the umbrella of corporations.

The bill is a continuation of council efforts pushing for ethics reform that began in the fall, Pesante said, adding that Cheh has not set a deadline by which she hopes the law would pass.

Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans, whose constituency covers GW, called the bill “a terrible idea.”

“Campaign financing in the District of Columbia now works quite well,” Evans said. “Right now, we have the best disclosure system in the country.”

Evans said a ban on corporate contributions would set off an explosion of Super PACs, mirroring federal campaigns. Super PACs allow independent expenditure-only committees to raise unlimited sums of cash from corporations, unions and other groups and use funds to advocate for or against a candidate.

“If a super committee spent money on my behalf, then you have no idea where that money is coming from,” Evans said. Super PACS operate independently of candidates and political parties.

Evans has raised slightly more than $300,000 for his 2012 campaign, according to fundraising data released last month. Nearly one-third of that money came from businesses and corporations.

The bill would limit his ability to raise money, Evans admitted. But he doubts the proposal will pass through the council, he said, adding that it is too idealistic to depend on individuals for campaign funds.

Though he said he thinks highly of Cheh and the bill’s cosponsor, council member Tommy Wells, Evans pointed to the legislation as a tool for garnering media attention because “you get a lot of press when you do stuff like that.”

Bryan Weaver, a city activist and former D.C. Council candidate, filed a proposal in January with the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics to add a ballot initiative similarly calling to outlaw corporate contributions.

Weaver’s measure targets conflicts of interest – in cases where city contractors end up funneling money into D.C. politicians’ campaign coffers – along with bundling – when individuals form multiple corporate entities with the same address to filter more donations to a candidate.

The new bill and the ballot initiative have similar goals, he said.

“I’m interested to see who will be in support of the legislation,” Weaver said, adding that he is not confident it will pass. “This council hasn’t viewed corporate contributions as problematic.”

Pesante said the bill’s trajectory depends on the council’s agenda, but she expects it to see a vote this year.

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