Independence of D.C. Watchdog Office Threatened: Coalition Tells D.C. Council

D.C. government officials have plans to change the law in ways lthat will disable the Office of Open Government (OOG), the D.C. Open Government Coalition testified February 23 at the annual performance oversight hearing on the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA) that includes the OOG.

Proposals in the works at the board could harm the office, according to the Coalition’s government affairs committee chair, attorney Robert Becker. He reported on the text of a bill obtained by the Coalition and under consideration by D.C. officials.

The D.C. Council established the board, and the OOG as an independent office within it, in a larger ethics law that took effect in 2012.  The board, under that law, appoints the director to a 5-year term (removable only for cause). The director is authorized to employ staff as needed to carry out the Office’s mandate to enforce the Open Meetings Act and oversee the D.C. Freedom of Information Act.

Yet the draft bill, not yet submitted to the Council but apparently timed to be considered as part of this year’s budget process, gives the board total control over the OOG director and docket, as well as its budget — undermining the independent Office the Council envisioned and making the director of open government an employee serving only at the pleasure of the board.

In what the Coalition called a “questionable management decision,” the BEGA board has allowed officials in its ethics unit (already flush with more than a dozen staff and a director paid $10,000 more than the open government counterpart) to use the Office of Open Government budget as a kind of piggy bank, for example raiding it in 2014 to cover ethics unit cost overruns which derailed the OOG appointment of a much-needed staff attorney. More recently the ethics side has interfered with OOG travel and expenses.  

OOG must be independent, the Coalition said, so that it can enforce the open meetings and public records laws applicable to all D.C. agencies including BEGA.  The Coalition urged the Council to oppose the proposals, in order to prevent BEGA having final say over the OOG work or the power to fire the director.

And even if the new proposal never materializes, the Coalition urged the Council to “provide adequate resources and secure funding” to keep up with ever-growing need for OOG enforcement efforts that fecently expanded even to suing a D.C. agency that, according to court papers, flagrantly disregarded the open meetings law.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Allen acknowledged he was aware of the proposal but had not seen it. He  welcomed the Coalition offer to provide a copy.

Video of the hearing is here. Coalition testimony begins at 1:18:25. The BEGA chair, Robert Spagnoletti, commented at 1:51:30 that a problem with existing law requires the proposed legislation as a corrective. The OOG director’s testimony, including details of excessive financial oversight by the ethics unit head, is at 1:53:40.

Coalition testimony is available at a link below.