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D.C. Council Ethics: Kwame Brown Defends Transparency As Colleagues Tangle On Reform

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Michael Grass/HuffPost DC

WASHINGTON -- Just as District of Columbia Councilmember Vincent Orange (D-At-Large) prepares to unveil emergency ethics-reform legislation at a Monday press conference, the council's embattled chairman, Kwame Brown (D), is reiterating that he's being as open and transparent as he possibly can on lingering ethics questions that have dogged him for months.

The chairman has been on an ethics push of his own, saying he's committed to getting new reform legislation through the council by the end of the year. And he's been ruffling the feathers of his colleagues in the process, especially with a controversial directive that mandates broader financial disclosures for council staffers, all the way down to office receptionists. But those disclosures wouldn't be publicly available, raising questions of the chairman's commitment to transparency.

As Washington Examiner columnist Jonetta Rose Barras wrote of Brown's ethics push last week: "That's all fancy footwork and fast talk."

Brown, whose 2008 campaign finances are being investigated by the U.S. attorney, made stops on the local politics talk-show circuit in recent days to try to talk about other matters, like improving the District's middle schools.

Inevitably, Brown faced continued questioning over the now infamous "fully-loaded" Lincoln Navigator scandal and about the finances of his 2008 campaign -- including why his brother, Che, hasn't turned over his bank records related to work he did during the race. An audit released earlier this year by D.C.'s Office of Campaign Finance found that Kwame Brown's campaign paid his brother's sales-training firm, Partners in Learning, more than $240,000 through a company contracted to do campaign field operations, Banner Consulting. As Washington City Paper's Alan Suderman noted in April, "Kwame's committee didn't provide records to back up that those payments were legitimate." And Che Brown, as WAMU-FM's Patrick Madden reported in June, has been "unable to provide documentation for the approximately $170,000 spent on 'day labor.'"

Togo West, then the Board of Elections and Ethics chairman, told reporters in July that "[w]e think there's criminal activity here that needs to be looked into."

Kwame Brown has been sticking to his talking points. During a Wednesday interview on NewsChannel 8 's "News Talk With Bruce DePuyt," the chairman pushed back on suggestions he hasn't been totally forthcoming on his questions related to his campaign finances:

Bruce DePuyt: You've used the phrase "full disclosure" a couple times here: Is there an inconsistency in the repeated requests that have come for your bank records and your brother's bank records stemming from the 2008 campaign that's been the subject of much scrutiny? If you're not willing to disclosure everything in your past, are you in a position to ask your colleagues to perhaps to do more in this disclosure area?

Kwame Brown: First I think you should be factual because what you just said is not true … There are no outstanding requests for my bank records at all. I've been fully cooperative on every level that I've needed to be fully cooperative on.

DePuyt: Family?

Brown did not respond to DePuyt's reference to his brother, but went on to say:

Brown: I think it's important you be factual on this on. You can't say that I'm not cooperating and turning over my personal stuff when that's just not factual, at all. I am open, and open and transparent and willing and cooperative on every level as possibly can be.

On Friday, NBC4 political reporter Tom Sherwood, on WAMU's "Politics Hour," pressed the chairman further:

Tom Sherwood: In your campaign finance records, bank records, your brother has not turned over his records in how he spent money from your campaign. Why don't you tell your brother, Che, to turn over the information on how he spent your campaign money? It was your campaign. It's your name that's being sullied by the failure of this information [not] being made public.

Brown: Once again, I've asked him to do that. I've asked everyone to be open and transparent.

Sherwood: Don't invite him to Thanksgiving or something. Just ask him do it.

Brown: We're being as open and transparent as possible in this process.

WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi chimed in later:

I have a broader concern. My broader concern is that it seems that for awhile you were behind the ethical curve and it seems like what you're trying to do now with the legislation that you've introduced for financial disclosure and the like is to get ahead of the ethical curve. Is that the lesson you have learned from all this that has occurred?

Brown didn't directly respond to Nnamdi's question, but stressed his hopes to have a comprehensive ethics package through the council by the end of the year.

In the meantime, an ethical cloud continues to hang low over the Wilson Building, from the "Team Thomas" troubles that have ensnared Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5); to the shoddy hiring practices of Mayor Vincent Gray's administration; to the D.C. Republican Party's hammering on the alleged misuse constituent-service funds by councilmembers; to fresh details on the conflict behind how the D.C. Lottery contract was awarded.

As all this continues to stew, the next ethics move is coming from Orange, who wants a task force on ethics and is readying emergency legislation. As Suderman wrote on Thursday:

Orange's task force would comprise the chairman of the Board of Elections and Ethics, the director of the Office of Campaign Finance, the attorney general, special counsel for ethics in the AG's office, the inspector general, the city's auditor, and the chief financial officer. Its mission would be, among other things, to draft a "code of ethics" for elected officials.

This comes as Brown pushes his ethics-reform legislation with Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3). And then there's Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who wants restrictions on campaign donation bundling and registered lobbyists contributing to campaigns and constituent-services funds -- the "lifeblood of District politics," Suderman wrote.

On Monday, all eyes will be on Orange. In the meantime, with all the ethical wrangling, it "will make it hard to get on with the city’s business," The Washington Post's editorial board lamented last week.

WATCH: Kwame Brown on WAMU-FM

WATCH: Che Brown's Pitch for Partners In Learning

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