It's open season for federal employees as well as many privately-employed people to change their health plan selection for next year. We speak with experts for tips and will take your questions about how to make the right choice for you and your family.
Another guilty plea in a sprawling corruption scandal clouds the future of D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. The presidential candidates step up their game in battleground Virginia. And Maryland voters may get the final word on the state’s new congressional map this fall. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
- Irvin Nathan Attorney General, District of Columbia
- James Rosapepe Maryland State Senator, (D- Dist. 21, Prince George's / Anne Arundel County)
- Tom Sherwood Resident Analyst; NBC 4 reporter; and Columnist for the Current Newspapers
Politics Hour Video
D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan talked about Mayor Vincent Gray’s proposed campaign finance reforms and how it differs from Initiative 70, which would ban corporate contributions to political campaigns. Nathan said the proposal would ban “pay to play” and prohibit bidders on government contracts from making campaign contributions. “I think Mayor Gray has done a great job of proposing some bold and systematic reforms to our campaign finance laws,” Nathan said.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Politics Hour," starring Tom Sherwood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Tom Sherwood, he's our resident analyst. He's also an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers.
MR. KOJO NNAMDITom, the top news story of the day, locally, anyway, is that a D.C. police officer has allegedly threatened First Lady Michelle Obama, a police officer who has been assigned to details protecting White House officials, and apparently made a remark to the effect that he would like to shoot her in the head. We don't know exactly whether this is true. It is still an allegation, but he has been, for the time being, relieved of duty. What do you know?
MR. TOM SHERWOODWell, I think we're all still trying to find out exactly what happened, but even in the best case, if this officer were making some lewd or ridiculous joke, it's an outrageous behavior on the part of a police officer in the sensitive time we're in. And there was some allegation -- and I have not followed every detail of the story. But that he even popped up on his phone a picture of the type of gun he would use if he did it.
MR. TOM SHERWOODAnd it makes me -- and, you know, and my feelings about excessive security since 9/11, I'm thinking we have not just tens or twenties or hundreds but thousands and maybe tens of thousands of people who have guns and are part of the armed police forces in this region. And it only takes one of them to crack and do something terrible.
NNAMDIWell, of course, we'll be following this story because, for most people, it's an unbelievable story to think that, A, somebody who is -- has the responsibilities of a police officer would say this -- to think that anybody will say this is, of course, outrageous and shocking. But to have it said by a police officer, well...
SHERWOODWell, you know, the -- you have to remember these police officers, many of them, they work 12-hour days. They're under a great deal of stress. They -- you know, there's a lot that goes into being a police officer. And I like -- just to remind people, you know, they all carry loaded weapons.
NNAMDIAlso reported today that the Vincent Gray campaign apparently inaccurately documented $100,000 in expenses in records filed in the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance. Of course, that pales in comparison to the news revealed earlier this week in the guilty plea by Gray friend and associate Jeanne Harris Clarke -- or is it Jeanne Clarke Harris?
SHERWOODJeanne Clarke Harris.
NNAMDIJeanne Clarke Harris, that some 653...
SHERWOODKnown as Jeanne to her friends.
NNAMDISome $653,000 was illegally steered to the Gray campaign. I'd like you to talk about the implications of both of those revelations.
SHERWOODWell, the problem is is The Post story talks about it, Betty Brown, the treasurer of the -- we'll call the legitimate campaign. Near -- I think near the end of the campaign was -- it showed that she got $100,000. And I think Marie Drissel was complaining about that to civic activists. And now, Ms. Brown has said that was an inaccurate accounting of the money. The money didn't go to her 'cause there could be tax issues and all kinds of things if it did.
SHERWOODBut this money was used for the kind of the walk-around money that's kind of classic in campaigns to pay Election Day workers. I think the law says the maximum a person can be paid is $50 in cash. The Post reports there are $100 payments. And so it's unfortunate because we've been talking about the shadow campaign and the legality of that, and, now, there's more information that the official campaign may have been flawed also.
NNAMDIIt seems so long ago that we found details of the $653,000 shadow campaign, even though that itself was just earlier this week.
SHERWOODSeems like two weeks ago.
NNAMDIYes. The implications of that, of course, one, is that three council members have now called for the resignation of Mayor Vincent Gray. Mayor Vincent Gray says that he has, at this point, no reason to resign. He's saying nothing else on the advice of his attorney, Robert Bennett, but, clearly, the mayor is in trouble now because the validity, the legitimacy of his mayoralty has been called into question.
SHERWOODIt is, and the mayor is trying to -- and maybe we'll talk about this if it's possible. The mayor has thought -- when he does say something, to separate the act of campaigning and the act of governing. The mayor can make a very good case that the government is functioning in many well respects. I won't go through the whole list that he does, but education, public safety, economic development...
SHERWOOD...those type of things. But it's like saying that you hit a homerun, but you started on third base or something.
SHERWOODYou know, the question is, is the mayor's -- the question now for us, for the people in the media, was it a legitimate campaign, and is the mayor a criminal?
SHERWOODWe do not know the answer to those questions.
NNAMDIAnd, as I mentioned, what is the significance of three council members at this point calling for the mayor's resignation?
SHERWOODWell, it was fairly significant. David Catania has battled with the mayor over the United Health Care Center and another couple other things.
NNAMDINo surprises there.
SHERWOODAnd so -- but, you know, but even so, for Catania as a -- I think he's a lawyer. Isn't he a lawyer? Yes.
NNAMDIYes. He is. Everybody is a lawyer in this town.
SHERWOOD(unintelligible) Well, no, not everybody, thank goodness.
SHERWOODThere are few free citizens around somewhere. And -- but he can be pretty tough, and so he was tough. And Muriel Bowser, who has established her own career and may be running for mayor, she came out. And some people said, oh, well, she's, you know, she's a big supporter of Fenty's, and Fenty helped make her, so she's just doing that. But, no, she said that this was a troubling thing.
SHERWOODAnd the worst of the three council members for the mayor, I believe, is Mary Cheh. Mary Cheh bucked the Ward 3 establish -- the citizens who voted almost, like, 85 percent for Adrian Fenty in the 2010 campaign. She bucked those folks, and she's publicly supported Vince Gray and Kwame Brown. And she's been burned -- she's believes now on both of them, and she thinks that, even if the mayor did not know about this shadow campaign, it has corrupted his ability to govern.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Our resident analyst is Tom Sherwood. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. Joining us in studio is Irvin Nathan. He is attorney general for the District of Columbia. Irvin Nathan, good to see you again. Thank you for joining us.
ATTY. GEN. IRVIN NATHANThank you for having me. Nice to be back.
NNAMDICouple of weeks ago, you testified before the council about Mayor Gray's new campaign finance proposals. Here we are in the middle of campaign financing scandals. It's not the first time that local politicians have tried to reform campaign finance. Tommy Wells' proposal last year, for example, was soundly defeated 12-1. Why do you think that this new approach will be successful?
NATHANWell, I'm hoping we can learn from the experience that we're undergoing now, and I think Mayor Gray has done a great job of proposing some bold and systematic reforms to our campaign finance laws. Our proposals would ban the pay-to-play culture that we've had. People who are bidders for government contracts or grants would not be permitted to make contributions. People either have contracts or looking for contracts would not be able to make contributions to candidates.
NNAMDIAllow me to interrupt for one second...
NNAMDI...'cause I know you can't current on -- comment on the current investigations that are taking place. But, Tom Sherwood can. If that proposal was in place, we wouldn't be in this situation we are with Mayor Gray's (word?) ?
SHERWOODWell, if you create a phony campaign on the side, you can do anything you want to.
SHERWOODIt doesn't matter what the law says.
NNAMDIYes. But we're talking about contributions...
SHERWOODBut I don't think that's what the attorney general is speaking about.
NNAMDIBut we're talking about contributions from an individual who has contracts with the government, but go ahead.
SHERWOODYes, that's true.
NATHANWell, that's right. And, of course, the people who violate the laws, they have to be pursued and held accountable. But we also make sure that there is attribution. That is, people can't set up phony corporations or use a multiple of corporations to evade the maximum limits. And so corporations that contribute would have to disclose their affiliates and subsidiaries and their controlling shareholders, and all of their contributions would be aggregated and would have to be kept within the maximum you can pay.
SHERWOODHow does it differ if you -- on this -- from the Initiative 70, which is on the ballot, the Committee to Restore Public Trust?
NATHANWell, the ballot initiative would ban any corporate contribution to any committee for any purpose.
NNAMDIYou've called that a meat-ax approach.
NATHANI believe that's too broad. There are nonprofit corporations. There are corporations, small corporations that people use. I think those are appropriate, but they can't be used to evade the maximum limitations. And so that's how our proposal differs from the ballot initiative.
SHERWOODDoes the mayor's proposal, also as this initiative would do, ban the contributions to transition committees, exploratory committees (unintelligible) ?
NATHANWell, it doesn't ban it, but it would the same effect in terms of the maximum.
NATHANThere'd be maximum disclosure. We have increased disclosure under our requirements. And one of the things that we urge is that there be increased funding for the Office of Campaign Financing. I think they are under-resourced. They need more investigators, more software and to do a more diligent job in dealing with compliance with whatever campaign finance laws are.
NATHANAnd to answer your question, Kojo, I think that, you know, the current situation, the allegations that are out there will create an atmosphere -- it's not intended, and it's not very unfortunate -- but maybe some good will come out of it that this kind of legislation will be received well by the council this year.
NNAMDIIrvin Nathan, he is attorney general for the District of Columbia. He joins us in studio. If you have questions or comments for Irvin Nathan, call us at 800-433-8850. Send email to email@example.com. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, where you can ask a question or make a comment. How does Mayor Gray's proposal align, if you will, with the Supreme Court's recent rulings on campaign finance?
NATHANWell, it's consistent with that because the Supreme Court basically said that, under the First Amendment, corporations are people, and corporations have a right to contribute and participate in a campaign, and they can make expenditures. And so that's another reason that, I think, that the initiative is not quite consistent, although the Supreme Court decision was talking about expenditures and not contributions.
NATHANBut I think if you look at it in terms of what the intent is, it's probably right that corporations can make contributions, but they ought to be limited. And they can't be used to evade the maximum limitations.
SHERWOODSo you think a court case would -- even if Initiative 70 passes, whether you like it or you don't like it or you think it's effective or you don't think it's effective, that it's subject -- it's vulnerable to...
NATHANIt's potentially vulnerable. I issued an opinion that said that, with respect to contributions under current law that it would be valid to ban all corporations, and they could put it on the ballot. But it has that vulnerability as the law develops here.
NNAMDIHave you compared how the District's current rules about contractors making contributions to candidates for office compare with other cities or other states?
NATHANYes, we have. At the mayor's urging, we made a study and compared it to other jurisdictions -- New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles -- and they all have some form of limitation of contractors. I think that our proposal goes further than most, and it has -- we haven't yet introduced the legislation, but our plan is to put out legislation by the end of this month. It will be on a website.
NATHANPeople have a chance to look at it. We'll take comments over the summer. And the mayor proposes to have it introduced in the council in September, and I hope it will have the best features of all the other jurisdictions.
NNAMDIGentlemen, please put on your headsets. There's a question about this from Oscar or a comment in Northwest Washington. Oscar, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
OSCARWell, good afternoon. I'm so glad someone is talking about changing and really doing away with corporations contributing to a political campaign. How would that change the landscape moving forward? What would be the most immediate impact, and how do you think the politicians in this city would respond to it?
NNAMDIWell, Oscar, let's be clear. The proposal is not that corporations would not be able to contribute to campaigns, is that corporations who either have contracts or are seeking contracts with the city would not be able to contribute to campaigns. But, Mr. Attorney General, how would that, in your view, change the way politics is done in this city or the landscape, as our caller said?
NATHANWell, I think it would improve the culture and the appearance. I think this is largely an appearance issue. Although, obviously, you can have actual corruption or you could have quid pro quo, but the real problem is that people suspect that as a result of campaign contributions, contracts are awarded.
NATHANAnd if it is clear that with respect to the pay to play that corporations or any bidders that would -- it would involve individuals as well as corporation who are bidders on major government contracts, are not allowed to contribute, then the award of the contract would be seen as on the merits. And people would have more confidence that the procurement decisions were valid and justified.
SHERWOODI just have -- and, for an example, and I don't mean to pick on them. They've gotten a lot of bad press. But just say, for example, Pepco gave $25,000 to the mayor's transition committee. Does it have government contract? I mean, it had -- it has a utility. Would it be banned?
NATHANI don't believe that, because it does public service, it would be banned. There may be other contracts that would be covered by it. Obviously, Pepco, for example, is regulated by the Public Service Commission. Its rates are controlled. It's not that it has been awarded a contract by -- they have to provide power.
SHERWOODTo provide power. Yeah, I just (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIWhile you still have your headphones on, we can go to Elizabeth in Washington, D.C. Elizabeth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELIZABETHHi, Kojo. Hi, Tom. I used to work for the Williams administration, and we had ethics training. And it was all extremely clear that people were not allowed -- people who had any interest whatsoever on how we did our jobs were not allowed to give us anything, including a sandwich, just nothing. And those ethics laws, you know, are -- I mean, the training is very clear, but it's not followed.
ELIZABETHAnd I think that what needs to happen here for, you know, both government employees and also elected officials and candidates is that there should be no private financing or no private contributions whatsoever. I mean, that's the only way to get around it. What Mr. Nathan is talking about is more, you know, how this kind of thing can be kind of be tracked and figured out, you know, deducted after the fact by journalists. But, I mean, it needs to be addressed, you know, at the root cause.
NNAMDISo you're saying that you both favor public financing and a ban on private financing?
ELIZABETHThat's what I would say. I mean, we've had so much trouble...
NNAMDIBecause at the federal level, there is public financing, but candidates simply turn it down because they can raise more money.
ELIZABETHRight, of course. And the fact is that there is pay-to-play. I mean, I'm sorry, but I think it's actually laughable. I'm very sorry because, you know, I'm a native Washingtonian. I was a public servant for six years. I care a lot about the District, and I'm really tired of seeing it over and over and over again, being a laughingstock, you know, really.
NNAMDIHere's Atty. Gen. Nathan.
NATHANWell, look, I don't think that public financing is the answer here, and it hasn't proved to be the answer at the federal level or in other jurisdictions either. We obviously consider that as one of the alternatives. But, you know, citizens would have to pay much more in taxes and then candidates would have to decide whether they are going to be limited by those limits. And, you know, there are First Amendment rights to -- for candidates to get their message out and to be elected.
NATHANSo if we're going to have private financing, we have to have it in a way that is where things are reported and where there is full disclosure and where there are appropriate limitations so that misimpressions are not created. With respect to the ethics point, I wanted to make this point. We, too, have provided ethics training to all D.C. employees. We've prepared a manual that we have distributed.
NATHANAnd as, you know, the council, following the Harry Thomas matter, has, at the initiative of the Gray administration, created an ethics board, which was passed by the council, and the nominees of the mayor were approved this week. Former Atty. Gen. Bob Spagnoletti is going to be the chair of that board. It's going to be a very important board. And that board is going to cover the council as well as the executive branch, all employees, all members of the council.
NATHANAnd it's going to gear up. It's going to get resources. It's going to have a good staff. I think that's going to go a long way to deal with ethics in the District of Columbia.
SHERWOODMr. Attorney General, I do hope Mr. Spagnoletti did say they don't even have an office. I don't know if he has an office yet or not, but they're going to work on them. But I do want to ask about the ethics pledge because -- and this is -- and I realized that you cannot comment very much at all on the investigation that's ongoing. But in this context, the mayor is proposing an ethics pledge for workers and supporting ethics legislation.
SHERWOODA couple of city workers who were not involved in this and who actually liked Mayor Gray said, how can the mayor stand on firm ground to say ethics are important, but yet is caught up in this -- the legitimacy of his campaign to even be mayor to propose anything, let alone an ethics panel? How much handcuffing of ability to get things done and to inspire people is being caused by this investigation to get the work done in the government?
NATHANWell, I can't say that this is not a distraction, and it is not the subject of water cooler discussions. But in my observation, the people in the government are extremely focused on getting the job done. We certainly are doing that at the attorney general's office, and I see that in the deputy mayors, the city administrator and the agency heads. And...
SHERWOODWere you called into that meeting the mayor had when...
NATHANI was testifying at that time, so I was not present for that meeting.
SHERWOODDid he say at that point -- people in the meeting said, he said he was -- I'm innocent. I'm going to focus on -- we're all going to focus on our jobs. You do your job. I'll take care of this investigation. I'll do what I need to do there. We'll keep moving.
NATHANWell, and I...
SHERWOODWhat else can he do?
NATHANI think that's exactly right, and I think that's what happened. You know, since you discussed this matter before I got -- was introduced, I do want to make one point. You're right. I was not in the campaign. I do not know what happened during the campaign, and this investigation is being conducted by the U.S. Attorney's Office. But I've been working with the mayor since January of 2011, and I have seen him up close and personal in dealing with governmental affairs.
NATHANAnd my judgment, this is an honest man who is doing a very good job as the mayor. He's focused on the issues. He is, in everything I've seen, ethical. There's no cutting of corners. There's no evasion of the law with respect to anything that's going on in the governing of the District. And you mentioned a number of positive things that have happened during the time of his administration.
NATHANSo I do think that calls for resignation are extremely premature. I think, as a lawyer, you know, we have a presumption of innocence in this country. It is appropriate to wait for the investigation, which is a very serious investigation that should be continued. I hope it'll be continued as expeditiously as possible. And we should await the results before jumping into conclusions.
SHERWOODThe court of law...
NNAMDICalls for resignation may be premature, but calls to participate in this broadcast are appropriate right now at 800-433-8850. Tom Sherwood.
SHERWOODThe court of public -- the court of law is that you're innocent until proven guilty. Court of public opinion, it is different. And, of course, that's the mayor as political leader to deal with, not the attorney general. But I just -- and the mayor says Bob Bennett, his lawyer, tells him not to discuss these things. And that's, you know, Bob Bennett's job is to make sure that the mayor is not falsely charged or convicted or -- in any way illegally. But who runs the city?
SHERWOODNow, Eleanor Holmes Norton said all the nice things you just said about the mayor yesterday, but she said the mayor has a "obligation" in a matter of days to explain something to the people who are worried. Jim Graham, councilmember who's not called for the resignation, said, well, I'm going to give him a few more days but just a few more days. Before I call for his resignation, we need to know something.
SHERWOODAnd I've been told that within the administration, there are some discussions about why the mayor should make some kind of comment, but he -- you know, lawyer says no.
NATHANWell, I know there is interest. I'm certainly interested in knowing the results, but I think we need to wait for the U.S. attorney to complete that investigation. That will -- and we'll know what happened.
NATHANAnd in the meantime, as exactly as you said, I think not only the employees of the District but the citizens need to focus on what's important here, and that's running the city and making sure that services are provided, which they are being provided, in my view, very well, that we have economic development in the city, that education is improving, that crime is down. Those are the things that we have to work on, and that's what we're going to work while the investigation proceeds.
SHERWOODKeep your legal hat on for this question if you don't mind.
SHERWOODRobert Machen, the U.S. attorney, after the conviction or after the pleading guilty of felonies of the first two people who said that the voters of the District were deceived in the campaign, and he then, after Jeanne Harris, he said that this -- they were mislead. The people of the District of Columbia deserve to know the truth, and that's what he's going after. If for -- let's just for -- is there a way if -- can citizens -- and this is just a legal question, not a recommendation. Can citizens, if there's -- have this election voided? Do we -- I mean, is there any...
NATHANWell, there is a recall process that would be possible, I suppose. And I think one has even started.
SHERWOODOh, between the second and third years, right?
NATHANRight. But, you know, you have to -- look, Machen is exactly right, and these campaign laws are important. And they should be complied with, and there needs to be full disclosure of both contributions and expenditures. And that's what our bill wants, and I think that is what we need. And from the guilty pleas, it appears that that was not the case. The question is, you know, who is responsible for that and that's -- that has to be determined through the investigation.
NATHANBut I'd also point out that the issue of -- you have to think about would this have made a difference if these things had been disclosed, and that's something to think about on the political side. You know, as I understand it -- and, again, I wasn't involved in the campaign on either side -- but I understand that the former incumbent Mayor Fenty had a war chest that was a lot larger than the incumbent -- than the challenger Mr. Gray. So did this make a difference, and if there had been disclosures, would that have made a difference, that's part of the political process.
SHERWOODIt would've still been illegal.
NNAMDIA couple of them...
NATHANIt would've still been illegal. Absolutely.
NNAMDIA couple of investigations I'd like to ask you, but I'll start with Joe Mamo first because you started investigating Joe Mamo, I think, over a year ago. For those who are unfamiliar with him, he owns a large number of the gas stations in the District of Columbia, and he also provides wholesale fuel to those gas stations. And the questions were raised about whether or not he was having an undue influence on prices here and the like. Where is that investigation?
NATHANWell, we did a very intensive investigation not only of Mr. Mamo but of the gasoline industry. And our conclusion, after hiring outside experts and getting data, paying for other data, was that in some quarters of the city, there was an increase in prices, but in many other parts of the city, there was no increase in the gasoline prices and that in the parts of the city where there was an increase, that those residents had other alternatives both within the city and in the immediate environments to go and get cheaper gasoline.
NATHANWe continue to monitor, but we are informed that there are private plaintiffs who are contemplating class actions. And my judgment that given the limited resources that we have and the battle that would ensue, it is better for us to wait to see if those suits are brought. And if they are, we'll make our views known to the court but not to initiate a court proceeding on our own at this time.
NNAMDIBut is it possible to give results of the investigation without, I guess, affecting the possible cases that are brought, I mean, if people in the public simply want to know what you have found?
NATHANWell, you know, I wouldn't say that our investigation is completely over and -- but at the appropriate time, particularly if there is private litigation that is brought, we will make known to the court and, of course, therefore, to the public what we have found about the results.
NNAMDIAnd the other investigation I wanted to ask about the -- there's an impression that the D.C. government can easily be abused by people in it and those working for it for personal enrichment. You recently filed lawsuits against city workers who are double-dipping. What was that case all about?
NATHANWell, these are people who had jobs in the city, who were claiming that they are unemployed and were seeking unemployment benefits from the city. There were a large number, but there were different circumstances. In some cases, people hadn't yet got their jobs. They hadn't yet or they had their jobs or they hadn't yet received their paycheck and they continued to get the unemployment benefits. Others were engaged in outright fraud by continuing to work, receiving paychecks and getting unemployment.
NATHANSo we have pursued -- there's at least one case in the criminal courts brought by the U.S. attorney's office. We have more than a dozen suits against the people who owe the District money back, and we're trying to get those money back. We have -- there have been many terminations of individuals and suspensions of others and other disciplinary sanctions. So we are looking at each one of these things and looking at the individual circumstances and taking appropriate action as to everybody who was employed and was seeking unemployment.
SHERWOODAnd what's the universe of that? Just how many people? Was it a few dozen? Was it 15, 150?
NATHANI believe it's in the hundreds of...
SHERWOODCan I ask about the FOI?
NNAMDIPlease do. That's what I was going to ask about, but you do it better.
SHERWOODOK. I will. The mayor has proposed, as I understand it, a lengthening of the period in which a government agency has to respond to a FOI, Freedom of Information, request for specific document. The reporters, of course, are all nervous about this. We think the system works too slowly for the citizens and for us. What is the intent, what is the mayor trying to do, and why is he trying to do it?
NATHANWell, first of all, the, you know, the increase in time is five business days. So we're not talking about a lot of time.
SHERWOODFifteen to 20.
NATHANFrom 15 to 20. But in addition...
SHERWOODThat's a month, counting weekends.
NATHANWell, but what -- in addition, what we're really trying to deal with is not the quick-hitting, short, specific request for a limited amount of documents, which is what we usually get from the press. And I don't think the press would be likely impacted by the proposed changes. What we're trying to deal with is abusive claims where we get requests that -- from interested parties that say, give us every email that mentions that chief of police or that mentions The Fraternal Order of Police.
NATHANAnd, you know, the statute was adopted at the federal level in the 1960s and in the '70s in the District well before email existed. Now, there is -- and when that happened when -- back in the '60s and early '70s, you know, there were a lot of conversations in the District. Things were handled by oral communications, telephone calls or private meetings. Now, much of it takes place by email. And those emails have to be searched because under the statute, there are exemptions. We have to review it and exempt personnel information, attorney-client privilege information.
SHERWOODSo, administratively, you need more time.
NATHANSo, administratively, you need more time.
SHERWOODAnd it's a shutdown...
NATHANIt's not a question of trying to prevent information from getting out there. It's -- and the main proposal that we have there is to -- and many of the proposals are to modify our existing D.C. law to make it compatible with the federal law and what the federal law provides. And the key thing is that in federal law, the courts are empowered to grant extensions of time, where the requests are burdensome, that are lengthy and where the agency is proceeding diligently to recover the information.
NATHANBut in the D.C. law -- and we go to superior court. And many superior court judges have said on the record, look, my hands are tied. The statute doesn't give me any discretion here. It's a flat 15 days with, you know, one possible extension. And we have to -- you have to live off to that. And if you don't, then I'm -- I have to give attorney's fees and cost to the requester.
NATHANSo this is now taking away limited time of employees who have to do core functions for the government to spend time on this abusive, burdensome requests, and then a risk having the District coffers invaded for attorney's fees and cost. So we're trying to bring a rule of reason and have the courts have some discretion to deal with these requests.
SHERWOODAnd the mayor has told the employees to stop using personal email for official business.
NATHANAbsolutely. You know, that occurred in at least one exist -- one case that's out there. And there's a mayoral order that was -- the mayor made clear that you should not use your personal email accounts for any government business. It all has to be there in the government record, so it can provided for FOI or in litigation, and, if in exigent circumstances you have to use a personal email that you have to make a copy of that. You send a copy to the government server, so it's available when people ask for it.
SHERWOODAre you planning on staying through the end of this term?
NATHANYes. I'm planning to stay and serve the citizens of the District as long as I'm wanted there.
NNAMDIIrvin Nathan is attorney general for the District of Columbia. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIYou're listening to The Politics Hour. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. Tom Sherwood, the city council was quite busy this week. As a matter of fact, since they were getting ready to kind of adjourn for the summer and they passed all kinds of legislation, among the more controversial, however, the city council voting on taxi cabs and luxury car service.
NNAMDIThe luxury car service Uber manages to get -- manage to get a lot of people to contact members of the council to say, no, no, you can't make Uber charge three times as much to pick up someone as it costs them to get a taxi because you'll put them out of business. And, apparently, the chairperson of that committee, Mary Cheh, decided to hold off for a while on that.
SHERWOODYeah. Uber is a separate thing from the cabs who patrol the street. Uber has a thing where you sign up electronically. You know, it's social media.
SHERWOODAnd so the social media, of course, responded with all of the texts and messages to the council...
SHERWOODSomething that still seems to surprise the council for some reason.
SHERWOODWell, you know, we're still in the infancy of what social media can do to change politics, and this was an example. And Mary Cheh did pull that measure. But the -- I don't want to lose the overall importance of the bill. The mayor is continuing the reform at the dismay of the cab drivers that Adrian Fenty...
NNAMDIYeah. We talked about that last week, yes.
SHERWOOD...and that this will have a significant impact on how cabs are regulated and monitored in the city, what business they do, and that passed easily.
NNAMDII want to take one more call because a lot of people are interested in our previous conversation about campaign financing. Here's Ralph in Washington, D.C. Ralph, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RALPHHi, Kojo. Just briefly, you know, the comment was made that, you know, somehow it's going to cost the D.C. taxpayers more if we finance elections. Well, you know, I disagree with that because there was a survey done in Congress that said for every dollar given for lobbying, there's over $1,000 -- in some cases $10,000 -- in reward. So these guys are not giving money to elected officials because they don't think they're going to get anything out of it.
RALPHAs a matter of fact, the D.C. taxpayer pays many, many more times in additional contracts that are paying -- we're paying 30, 40, 50 percent more because of sweetheart contracts because somebody gave it a thought.
NNAMDIRight. So you favor public financing and a ban on private financing completely?
RALPHI would ban -- at a minimum, I would ban corporations because corporations are in there to take advantage of the citizens. They make their money off the citizens. So, you know, I don't agree with Congress -- not Congress, but the Supreme Court. Corporations are not people. As the guy said, ultimately corporations are people…
NNAMDIOK. Here -- here's Tom Sherwood. The point that Irv Nathan made earlier is that the definition of corporation can be so broad that it includes any small business.
SHERWOODWell, whether you don't like it or not, I mean, you know, corporations are treated, the Supreme Court has kind of ruled on this. But also, this public financing thing, it seems a bit of a Holy Grail in some respects. I'm not sure exactly how it would work. I mean, I realize it's done in some places. But who would be eligible for the money? You can't have financial thresholds. People who want to run are suddenly going to be -- you'll have an extraordinary rush to the ballot. I'm not sure how it would be handled, but it's worth discussing. But I don't see it, as a practical matter, working.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Ralph. Joining us now in studio is Jim Rosapepe. He's a member of the Maryland Senate. He's a Democrat who represents parts of Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties. Sen. Rosapepe, thank you for joining us.
SEN. JAMES ROSAPEPEWell, my pleasure.
NNAMDIIt was pointed out on this broadcast last week that a historic million-dollar fine leveled by Maryland against Pepco last year wasn't even worth a quarter of the salary of Pepco's CEO. But it seems that you and one of your colleagues are done with playing small ball. You and Brian Frosh said yesterday that you want to sue Pepco and BGE for more than $100 million each for the extended power outages your constituents recently suffered. What would be your case for doing so?
ROSAPEPEWell, the economic damage to the metropolitan area and to the state has been much more than $100 million. If you just take -- if you just say 500,000 homeowners lost $200 each worth of groceries because of the power failure, that's $100 million. That doesn't count the impact on small businesses, the impact on major businesses, the impact on the economy as a whole, so $100 million per utility is a minimum in terms of being serious about the economic damage that was caused by the power failure.
SHERWOODAnd -- I'm sorry about it.
ROSAPEPESimilarly, you have to have a very serious fine to have a real incentive effect on the utilities 'cause these are multi-billion-dollar businesses, and it's exactly, Kojo, what you just pointed out, is that a million-dollar fine is a rounding error for them. So if you want to incentivize them to do better and you want to deal with the real impact of the power failures, you got to get serious.
SHERWOODAnd the fine, $100 million, would come out of the profit arm of the utilities as opposed to...
SHERWOODNothing is subject to ratepayers.
ROSAPEPENo, no, no. Absolutely.
SHERWOOD'Cause a lot of people worry that if you fine Pepco or any other utility, that somehow it works its way back around to the rates.
ROSAPEPENo. There would be no -- there's no -- there would be no justification for recovering a fine, because you didn't perform a service, in rates. I mean, one of the outrages to this day is that, evidently, under the rules from the PSC in Maryland, Pepco will be able to collect money from ratepayers for the first day of outage. That's ridiculous.
SHERWOODIsn't that the point, though? I was going to ask the very subject. We had the chairman of the Public Service Commission on last week, talking about they're going to call Pepco in. They're going to have a meeting. They're going to discuss about their responses.
SHERWOODAnd I had gone back and looked at the annual report from Service Commission...
SHERWOOD...to 2004, where Pepco and other utilities were called in, were going to be explaining what you have to do. It seems to me that you need a more muscular Public Service Commission before you get to the fines.
ROSAPEPEWell, I think the Public Service Commission does need to be much more muscular. What Sen. Frosh and I have done is made a specific proposal to focus their minds, to focus the public's minds on what they need to do to do it right. They have a procedure, which is they'll get a report, they'll do an investigation, they'll do hearings over the next several months -- or the next several weeks, really -- not the next several years.
ROSAPEPESo our point is that we're putting a standard before the commission, saying, if you're going to be serious about this, you got to have a very serious fine. And the other part of our proposal that I do want to mention is we believe you should do selective undergrounding. But a shorter term solution is they need to create a National Guard-like part-time reserve of technically qualified people to put the poles back up, to fix the wires.
SHERWOODLike the guys who come out and shovel -- who take a pickup truck and shovel the snow, but somebody who's technically able to do the wiring.
ROSAPEPEAbsolutely. We got lots of retired military around here. We got lots of very able people who could do this work. It's crazy that Pepco says, we can't get your power on for three days 'cause the guys have to come from Quebec and from Alabama. That is ridiculous. We have plenty of people here. We have plenty of unemployed people here. We have plenty of carpenters and electricians and working people with a lot of skills in this area who'd be happy to do this.
ROSAPEPEIt's going to be set up just like the National Guard or a volunteer fire department, although they'd be paid. And so we're saying, take the $100 million from each of them and put that towards creating a surge reserve to get these lines up faster when they go down.
NNAMDIThat said, what are your thoughts on a rate increase...
ROSAPEPEOh, we're against it. I mean, it's ridiculous to cut off the power and raise the rates. I mean, only in Pepco Land does that make any sense at all. So Sen. Frosh and I and many other legislators have urged the commission to block the rate increase until we sort out -- the bigger question is keeping the lights on.
NNAMDIJim Rosapepe is a member of the Maryland Senate. He's a Democrat. He represents parts of Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties. If you have comments or questions for him, call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
SHERWOODPepco has said that it's -- after a series of these storms that we've had with the snow and all that, it's undergoing a five-year plan to improve its service, to do more. And the company has said that it's in the midst of that plan. It's getting better each time. You just think it's not getting better? You think it's getting worse, or is it just public relations? People are a little irritated, I think, after all the radio ads that have been done, TV ads.
ROSAPEPEPeople aren't irritated. They're angry. I mean, they think we live in a First World country. They think we're in the 21st century. They think we're an electricity-dependent economy, more so than we were in the 1950s. I mean, you talk about your smartphones. You talk about what's happened in 911. Unbelievable. And Pepco just hasn't caught up, and they'll say, we'll catch up in five years. That's not an acceptable approach to, I think, anybody who lives in this area.
NNAMDIWell, electric companies have been saying for years that when it comes to moving power lines underground, the juice is not worth the squeeze, that it's expensive and the cost will ultimately come down on ratepayers. You've been saying that the Public Service Commission needs to be looking at it...
NNAMDI...and you said on this broadcast that you are for selective burying of power lines. What do you mean by that?
ROSAPEPEWell, I mean -- I'll give you an example of my own district. There's an overhead power line that connects the distribution line on my street to my house. When that goes down, there's one family that loses power. Now maybe you don't underground that one, but there are distribution lines that create huge communities. I have a constituency -- a community in western Anne Arundel County called Russett, where there are thousands and thousands of people who live.
ROSAPEPEBecause it's a new community, their lines are underground because the legislature in 1968 required undergrounding for lines in new communities. But they still went out because the line that connects them to the grid went down. So you'd say, look, let's get those distribution lines underground to really protect lots of people, see what's cost-effective. And one way to do it is obviously -- is, over time, bury lines when we're digging up the roads for other reasons.
ROSAPEPEThere are lots of ways to do this cost-effectively. Pepco has stonewalled on this for years. And what we're saying is the commission needs to do its own study independently, line by line, come up with a plan and push it forward.
SHERWOODYou know, when -- and I realize you said the word study, and I just -- my eyes drooped.
ROSAPEPEI know. I totally get it.
SHERWOODMy eyes drooped 'cause I -- you just have to go to the website of any Public Service Commission...
SHERWOOD...and there are still...
SHERWOODIt's like a cog in the studies of whether we're going to deal with so much traffic…
SHERWOOD...what we're going to do with 911...
SHERWOOD...and how we're going to communicate with each other. It seems to me that it's a morass, and all we do is study it until the next crisis, which we say we're going to study it.
ROSAPEPEWell, (unintelligible) don't study.
SHERWOODPut the fine. Put the fine the fine in place now.
ROSAPEPEPut the fine now and create the reserve of repair workers now. We think it's going to be done in 60 days. We think it has to be done quickly because we're going to have another one of these storms in the next couple of months. Climate change is real. We're experiencing it here for the last several years. And we got to be prepared.
SHERWOODThere are some -- can I...
SHERWOODIn The Washington Post, someone responded to the story that Mary Pat Flaherty and Victor Zapana -- I'm not sure how to say his name -- said this is just political pandering. They will do nothing to help us in future blackouts. What these policies need to is change the current regulations in Maryland and allow any home that can generate electricity to do so in their own property.
ROSAPEPEI think that's very reasonable. I think this...
SHERWOODBut is it political pandering?
ROSAPEPENo, it's not political pandering. I get the political rhetoric. But on the substance of the issue, getting more distributed power is a very good idea. The more people who are generating -- who are heating their water with geothermal on property, the more people who are using solar, that's all good. That makes the whole electric system more resilient. So I'm totally supportive of it. On the merit, she's absolutely right.
NNAMDIOn, therefore, to John in Annapolis, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNYes, thanks. I live in Annapolis so I have BGE, but the similarity is exactly the same. I mean, you could take Pepco out with BGE in any symptoms that you've just talked about.
JOHNThe arrogance that is displayed by these monopolies is beyond belief. I actually had somebody out in the field when I was going around trying to find out what they were working on to try to get the power back on. They said -- and this guy works for Pepco -- BGE, I'm sorry. He said, well, you shouldn't have moved into an area with all these mature trees 'cause this kind of stuff happens, and the homeowners won't let us take anything down, any of the trees down. And yet they're advertising on TV that they're out working to cut the trees down so there won't be any problems.
NNAMDII have heard that complaint from others that the homeowners won't let people cut trees down because they love them so much.
SHERWOODIn North Shore, we cut trees down. We should just be careful...
SHERWOOD...where we put trees to begin with and then trim them properly so they don't die.
SHERWOODI'm sorry. You're the guest (unintelligible).
ROSAPEPENo, I mean, I agree.
SHERWOODSorry this is...
NNAMDIHe just said, yes.
SHERWOODSorry. This is (unintelligible) talking about this subject...
SHERWOODOnly security is the only other issue that'll get me started. Go ahead.
ROSAPEPEYeah. Well, clearly, we do need to trim trees. But Pepco's argument that it's the fault of the trees and the fault of the homeowners is absurd and offensive. It is their responsibility to deliver electric power. The Netherlands has 100 percent of their power lines underground. The United Kingdom and Germany have over 80 percent of their power lines underground. This is not rocket science. Other states do it. Other countries do it. We could be a first world capital again.
SHERWOODEven in an urban area, Mayor Gray has said we ought to consider it even though -- and some others have said, you know, it's a five -- I don't know where they get that figure -- five, $6 billion thing to bury all the lines. Is that feasible? Is that possible in, like, urban city or the (unintelligible) ?
ROSAPEPEIt absolutely is possible. And the thing to keep in mind, this is really a big economic development issue. We are getting a reputation around the world as one of those places that doesn't have reliable electric service.
SHERWOODOr traffic lanes.
ROSAPEPEThat's a killer in terms of attracting people to move here, in term of attracting people to have businesses here and be serious about it. It's a big part of a modern economy to have a reliable electric service, and we are losing our competitive edge because of Pepco and BGE's performance.
NNAMDIWell, who is not managing the trees? Who is -- here's Mike in Shepherdstown, W.Va. with a question along those lines. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEI think you folks have started talking about it already. But we tend to blame the power company for something that they really have no control over unless we can trim and manage trees. A hundred percent of the outages in my area were due to downed trees. And if someone would at least allow people to trim so that they aren't a threat to the power lines, we probably wouldn't have had any power outages at all in my area, so...
NNAMDISo you feel that the government is not carrying out its responsibility properly.
MIKEIt's the government. It's us, the people. I don't want to blame somebody else. It's my fault, too. I'm one of these folks out here. I'm a tree hugger. You know, I don't want my trees cut down. But there comes a point where you have to make a decision, whether it's important to have your trees or whether it's important to have reliable power.
ROSAPEPEThat's a false choice. That's the point of undergrounding. You don't have to cut down the trees if the wires aren't going to the trees if they're going to the ground. It's that simple.
SHERWOODYou know, they're not destroying the roots of the tree.
ROSAPEPEYeah, there you go.
NNAMDIWell, email from Jan says, "If it's the infrastructure that is a part of the cause of our problems, the power companies are not the only ones to blame. Some of the blame should also go to politicians who don't invest enough in infrastructure."
ROSAPEPEI think that's very fair. I mean, I think the reason we have the worst traffic congestion in the United States is 'cause we haven't been investing in our transportation infrastructure. I think that's very fair. But in the case of the electricity, that is the responsibility of the electric companies, and it is a responsibility of the Public Service Commission, and we shouldn't let them off the hook.
NNAMDII haven't been over to H Street to check this out, about where the new streetcar line is. I'm told that the city has planted trees right where the overhead line is going to be.
NNAMDIUnderneath the power line.
SHERWOODSo in 10, 20 years, the trees will grow up into the power lines to the street car. I don't know if that's true or not.
NNAMDINot after you mentioned it two weeks in a row on this broadcast. You know...
SHERWOODI'm just trying to...
NNAMDI…something's going to be done about it.
SHERWOODI've got to get over there, except these scandals would stop breaking so I could get over and do some other routine stories.
NNAMDIOn another topic, Jim Rosapepe...
NNAMDI...you have served on the board of regents at the University of Maryland. You've been very involved at the legislative level in recent debates about budget cuts to universities and tuition hike proposals.
NNAMDISo when you look across the river, to the mess that erupted at the University of Virginia this summer, what do you see?
ROSAPEPEWhat I see is a university system in Virginia that's, frankly, behind the curve compared to Maryland in terms of modernization. One of the things that we did when I was on the board of regents is we had something called the effectiveness and efficiency project, which was to look at how could we squeeze our needed cost at a higher education. They haven't done that in Virginia, and we've squeezed over $250 million out of the base cost at the university system of Maryland.
ROSAPEPEWe're moving to more and more courses that are offered online, in class, outside of class, very effective delivery, better quality in terms of students learning more. University of Maryland has been way out front on that, and I gather the University of Virginia has not been.
SHERWOODCan I -- on a similar question, the big story this week is not really the scandals in the city but the Penn State report on the Sandusky affair...
SHERWOOD...which said that the president of the school and Joe Paterno himself turn -- did not do nearly enough. They were more worried about the -- as a person, you were on -- five years were you on the board of regents?
ROSAPEPEYeah, five-and-a-half years.
SHERWOODWhat was your thought just reading that story about this great institution, Penn State, now being seen as coldhearted towards the abuse of young children?
ROSAPEPEFrankly, I think it's true of all large institutions, is they lose sight of their focus too often and focus more on protecting their own. And they define their own very narrowly. They're not defining as their own students. They're defining their own as their employees.
SHERWOODBut the concept that, well, we're doing so great with these football program and building the program, but we got to take that and balance that in some way with the abuse of children?
SHERWOODI mean, I don't covet that story. I think they should take the statue down...
ROSAPEPENo, but I think that's the problem. And this is not the only institution that has had sex abuse scandals. Others have as well, and they've had problems, I think, for essentially the same reasons. Institutions have a normal range of human frailties, but it's the responsibility of responsible adults and responsible institutions to spot them, curb them, fix them. And, too often, large institutions look the other way instead of dealing with the problem. It looks to me like that's what happened at Penn State. It could happen in other places and shouldn't.
NNAMDIJust about out of time. Jim Rosapepe, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIJim Rosapepe is a member of the Maryland Senate. He's a Democrat who represents parts of Prince George's and Anne Arundel Counties. And Tom Sherwood, whenever somebody has passed, we generally observe it on this show. Well, this individual hasn't passed, but he's moving on. Terrible Turk.
SHERWOODKojo, who are you talking about?
NNAMDITerrible Turk, Bill Turk, who was covering education for the Washington Post.
SHERWOODBill Turk, he's going to become -- yeah, a tremendous reporter for The Washington Post on education issues. I wouldn't want to be the reporter who replaces him. And I just think that whoever is running for president he gets assigned to, watch out.
NNAMDIHe's going on to national politics. That's where he's going.
SHERWOODYes, national politics, presidential campaign.
NNAMDITerrible Turk, he's going to haunt them on the national scene. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He is an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. Hey, good luck, Turk. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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