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Political Influence: Corruption, Clout or Democracy in Action?

Friday, November 22, 2013   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Joe Libertelli
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Above, from left, Darrin Sobin, Billy Martin, Art Spitzer, Frederick Cooke, Jr., and Shelley Broderick 

For more photographs, go to the School of Law's FLICKR site.

Political Influence:

Clout, Corruption or Democracy in Action?

Riveting Debate Among Panelists at UDC David A. Clarke School of Law on November 18, 2013

In a lively discussion at the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law and moderated by Dean Shelley Broderick, law school alumnus Darrin Sobin, the Director of the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability ("BEGA”) took on former federal prosecutor Billy Martin and well-known criminal defense attorney Frederick Cooke, Jr., arguing that BEGA is necessary to deter corruption in the D.C. government. Sobin had some support from the fourth panel member, Art Spitzer, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and members of the audience, but Mr. Cooke, a former Corporation Counsel, argued vehemently that while on occasion, there are clearly individual corrupt acts, there is no culture of corruption in D.C. government.

Mr. Martin, who has practiced law for 44 years, both as a federal prosecutor and currently as an attorney in private practice, opined that criminal prosecution for wrong-doing by the District’s elected and public officials is sufficient and further enforcement and sanctions are unnecessary. Several members of the audience, however, seemed to disagree, by expressing views that their government does not always work on their behalf or follow their wishes as evidenced by their votes on various referenda. Mr. Spitzer countered that such actions by elected officials is not evidence of corruption, per se, and if the public does not like the response it gets from its elected officials, it can vote for other candidates in the next election. There also was a lively discussion as to whether the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia has been effective at deterring corruption in D.C. government because, for decades, that office was not interested in prosecuting D.C. government officials.

Mr. Sobin pointed out that, in addition, there is a vast area of ethical misconduct that does not necessarily amount to criminal behavior and that such misconduct was not effectively addressed prior to BEGA’s creation. In any event, the panel members and public seemed to agree that the District would benefit from having a local prosecutor to handle local prosecutions.

The panel also addressed questions regarding whether the ethics regulations apply to Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners. Mr. Sobin answered that the answer is not always clear in that some do and some do not, highlighting the need for a Universal Code of Conduct.

Dean Broderick – who said her birthday was coming soon - presented a hypothetical case of a long-standing birthday book gift exchange between a dean and a faculty colleague and asked whether that was prohibited. Mr. Sobin said that, indeed, it was. Others asked whether prohibiting gifts between supervisors and subordinates will actually prevent District employees from committing crimes, and Mr. Sobin argued that gifts to co-workers was part of the reason the Harriet Walters tax scandal went undetected for so long and ultimately was brought to light, not by a District government employee, but by a bank employee. Mr. Cooke argued that the Harriet Walters tax scandal occurred because of a management failure.

There was also a lengthy discussion about District campaign finance rules and reform and specifically whether campaign contributions linked to campaign promises is improper. The panel was in general agreement that contributing to a candidate who supports a contributor’s cause, by itself, is not improper, but problems arise when there is a clearer and more immediate quid pro quo between a contribution and an act by a public official. Mr. Spitzer pointed out that having a plethora of rules can intimidate and deter citizens from exercising free speech rights. In a comment from the audience, UDC Vice President Michael Rogers raised the thorny question of Council oversight of contracts, which many thought could easily serve as the topic for an entire program of its own.

The evening ended with the general agreement among the panelists that the subject matter for the evening was important enough to revisit in the future.

The program was jointly sponsored by the DC Leadership Council, the DC Affairs Section of the DC Bar, DC Appleseed, DC Vote, the ACLU-NCA and the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law.

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