Monday, February 1, 2010

Dual Roles

When President Obama was elected, he established a new ethics rule that barred new officials from working at an agency at which they lobbied over the past two years or from making policy on any matter involving their former employers or clients. 

The District of Columbia has a very different approach.  Here, an individual can be appointed (or elected) to an important public position and continue employment with a law firm that represents those who are regulated by the government entity.

In the early 2000s, residents were frustrated with the course of the District's Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board.  They fought tooth and nail for the ABC Board to impose restrictions and penalties on problem businesses that were the center of public drinking, loitering, litter, public urination, and underage drinking.  Hearings went on forever with no result.  Even when Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) and community organizations reached agreements with the owners to curb the abusive practices, the ABC Board rejected the agreed-upon solutions in favor of more lenient approaches.  Just before I joined the Logan Circle ANC in 2002, it had discontinued all activity related to ABC licenses out of sense of frustration.  

Part of the ABC Board's lack of responsiveness may have stemmed from the fact that the Chairman of the ABC Board at the time was Roderic Woodson.  While serving as Chairman of the ABC Board, Woodson also worked at Holland & Knight, a law firm that represents the alcoholic beverage and hospitality industries.  Real or imagined, there was at least an understandable perception of a conflict of interest.

The Administration may have changed, but the practice of appointing an individual to represent the public while that individual is also holds another job that represents the regulated parties has not. 

In the article reprinted below, an outraged Peter Tucker draws attention to the latest controversial appointment that appears to be moving forward.  What is your view?

Bogged Down by Patton Boggs:
Betty Noel vs. Vicky Beasley
Peter Tucker

If the DC city council approves the mayor’s nomination of Vicky Beasley to head of the Office of the People’s Counsel, another Patton Boggs employee will fill a top DC government position. Since 1975, the Office of the People’s Counsel (OPC) has been “the advocate for consumers of natural gas, electric and telephone services in the District." Utility companies like Pepco, Verizon, and Washington Gas are given near-monopoly status by the District government. When a consumer has a problem with a utility, there is likely to be no government agency to turn to for help, aside from OPC. At the head of OPC is the consumer oriented Betty Noel, who is completing her unprecedented sixth three-year term as People’s Counsel.

At a Saturday hearing on the District’s utilities, witness after witness, from all over the city, criticized the performance of the utility companies (especially Pepco). They praised Ms. Noel’s experience, professionalism, and willingness to stand up to — and, if need be, sue — the utility companies on behalf of consumers. There was an overwhelming consensus that Betty Noel should be renominated for a seventh term, and that Vicky Beasley wasn’t qualified for the position.

While Vicky Beasley possesses minimalexperience with utility regulation or consumer issues, she has experience of another kind: according to Patton Boggs’website, “Ms. Beasley’s clients include telecommunications entities [and] quasi-governmental agencies.”  Unlike Betty Noel, who has made a career of fighting against greedy utility companies, Vicky Beasley apparently fights for them. I called Ms. Beasley and asked her to specify which clients she serves, but she declined to say and asked that I direct any questions for her to the Office of Boards and Commissions (which then referred me to the Mayor’s spokeswoman, Mafara Hobson, who has yet to respond to my questions).

District residents have experience with Patton Boggs employees in top government posts. Aside from the mayor and the chair of the city council, DC’s third most powerful elected official may be the chair of the committee on finance and revenue. This position is currently held by Councilman Jack Evans, an employee of Patton Boggs.  As chair of the finance committee, Mr. Evans has been instrumental in placing huge amounts of precious taxpayer dollars and public land into private hands, with little public benefit to show for it: Examples include the baseball stadium (more than $725 million), the Convention Center ($850 million), and now the Convention Center Hotel ($272 million), to name a few publicly funded, Evans-inspired projects.

There is a great deal at stake in who fills the position of People’s Counsel. The OPC is the only thing standing in the way of the utility companies getting the ever-higher rates they covet. If the council votes to confirm Vicky Beasley, a Patton Boggs employee whose clients include “telecommunications entities” and “quasi-governmental agencies,” OPC may head in a radically different direction; a move that utility companies will surely cheer.

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