The D.C. Council held a hearing Thursday to gauge the effectiveness of the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA), responding to a city auditor’s report that criticized the agency’s handling of a whistleblower and amid a scandal involving a city lawmaker.
“Because the inconsistency and uncertainty in addressing complaints of unethical behavior, it gives a permissiveness to that behavior, it says it’s ok to do the wrong thing,” said council member Elissa Silverman, at-large independent. “And what I am increasingly worried about … is that permissiveness gives way to such ethical corrosion in our government that it can lead to criminal behavior.”
D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson released a report in early October saying BEGA “failed to live up to its mission” by not responding to repeated notifications of a complaint about a city official improperly directing funds to an affordable housing developer. Mrs. Patterson also found the agency had insufficient procedures for tracking complaints.
The auditor testified Thursday that in her review of the case uncovered five instances of “response failures” in which BEGA did not respond to government employees seeking ethical advice.
In his testimony Thursday, BEGA Director Brent Wolfingbarger criticized how Mrs. Patterson had executed her report, specifically chiding the auditor for not notifying his agency of the review. He later admitted that the report did trigger reforms in BEGA.
“We took to heart the fact that we had mishandled the complaint in question, and we viewed it as an opportunity to implement changes in our complaint intake process that would minimize the risk that oversight like this would happen again,” Mr. Wolfingbarger said, adding that he thinks this was an isolated incident.
Among the reforms the ethics agency has undertaken:
⦁ Regularly reviewing the general email inbox with the case management system to ensure all complaints are received and acted on.
⦁ Connecting the online intake portal directly to the case management system.
⦁ Revising intake policies and assigning responsibility for how complaints are handled.
However, Mr. Wolfingbarger said he didn’t know how many undocketed complaints his agency has received. He said a former employee used an Excel spreadsheet for cases on his computer that BEGA does not yet have access to.
Council member Charles Allen, Ward 6 Democrat, raised the issue of the money and time lawmakers are spending on the ethics investigation fellow lawmaker Jack Evans, saying it is a matter within BEGA’s purview.
“You are making the council be BEGA,” Mr. Allen told Mr. Wolfingbarger.
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Erin Palmer testified that she filed a complaint about Mr. Evans and struggled to get updates from BEGA on the status of her complaint.
Ms. Palmer, who is also a federal ethics enforcement lawyer, said the agency lacks structure and suggested some improvements:
⦁ Providing docket numbers to complainants.
⦁ Creating guidelines for holding or resuming investigations.
⦁ Devising a policy to determine when BEGA self-initiates an investigation.
⦁ Offering complainants information on how to file a complaint and what happens after it is filed.
The council created BEGA in 2012 and made it responsible for ethics enforcement and training in the aftermath of criminal investigations of three council members.
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