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The award for worst bad government idea this week goes to Councilmember Mary Cheh.


I hope that she said what she said in a fit of momentary resentment and pique, and now regrets it.


But I doubt that, so I think it is worth pointing out how wrong she was. Cheh actually had a good week. On July 17, the Office of Campaign Finance released its final report and order in a complaint about her campaign that had been filed by Jonathan Rees.


The order is available in PDF format by going to http://ocf.dc.gov/cfd/cfd.asp, and clicking on Mary Cheh (you may have to use Internet Explorer to get this page to work).


The complaint had essentially two parts.


The first was not a complaint against Cheh, but against Joe Sternlieb and Linda Singer, whom Rees accused of creating a political action committee (PAC) to raise campaign funds for Cheh, and failing to register the PAC or file financial reports for it.


The second was a charge that Cheh paid an unusually low rent for her campaign headquarters space, and that the difference between the low rent and the market rate rent constituted an illegally large campaign contribution from the realty company, P.N. Hoffman, that managed the building. Joseph Sternlieb and Linda Singer are a married couple who are politically active in Wards 3 and 4. They were prominent supporters and fundraisers both in Mayor Fenty's primary and general campaigns and in Councilmember Cheh's primary and general campaigns in Ward 3.


Sternlieb is a developer whose career began as the committee clerk for Charlene Drew Jarvis on the Committee on Economic Development. He helped write the legislation that established Business Improvement Districts, moved from that position to become a senior official of the Downtown BID, and left the BID to enter development. His current company, EastBanc, is the sole-source beneficiary of the mayor's and council's "emergency" giveaway of the West End Library, fire station, and police office.


Linda Singer, who had been executive director of DC Appleseed, was appointed by Mayor Fenty as the District's Attorney General, at a time when she was not a member of the DC Bar.


Rees charged that Sternlieb and Singer called together a group of people to interview Ward Three council candidates, that the group selected Mary Cheh as its preferred candidate, and then raised money to support her campaign, which would fit the definition of a PAC.


Rees called the group "Friends of Joe Sternlieb," and the OCF makes a big point of the fact that the group was called "Ward 3 Action," and not "Friends of Joe Sternlieb." The OCF wrote letters to several members of this group and interviewed a few, whose interviews it summarizes in its report. It did not receive a reply to its letter inquiry from Attorney General Singer, and did not attempt to interview her, but accepted the representation of her husband that she was not involved with the group or in any of the group's activity. Sternlieb, whom the OCF identifies as a developer and "community leader," an honorific it doesn't accord to anyone else in its report, represented that the group did not raise money for Cheh as a group, but as individuals, and that he did not collect contributions from others, but merely loaned his name to fundraisers for her and informed others of how they could contribute to her campaign. On this evidence, the OCF came to the conclusion that the group was not legally a PAC. The amount of office space occupied by the Cheh campaign is at the heart of the second controversy. Rees and two workers in the Christian Science Reading Room next door to the campaign headquarters said that the campaign occupied the entire space vacated by its former occupant. People associated with the rental company and the campaign, however, testified that the campaign used only two or three rooms in that space, and paid an appropriate rent for that amount of space. OCF credits their testimony, and again rejects Rees' charge. The OCF did find that the Cheh campaign published a campaign flyer without the required identifying notice that the committee paid for the flyer. It fined Cheh $500 for the violation, and suspended that fine.


Jonathan Rees is controversial. I know that because every time I publish one of his messages in themail, I get E-mails saying I should never publish anything by him, and saying that the writers will never read or submit anything to themail again because I used a message by Rees. But his suspicions and charges of campaign irregularities in this matter seem perfectly reasonable to me, even if they were not upheld by the Office of Campaign Finance.


Now, here's the worst bad government idea that Cheh promoted, from the Post article about the OCF's report: "Cheh said she was outraged about the time and money spent by the city because 'one misguided individual, Jonathan Rees, thought he could make mischief.' Cheh said Rees should have to repay the city for the waste of time resulting from his 'malicious charges.'" On the contrary, a citizen who witnesses what he believes to be misconduct in a political campaign should be encouraged to report it to the Office of Campaign Finance. Cheh, instead, wants to discourage it -- to wreck retribution on citizens if the OCF doesn't support their complaints. This is nothing but a politician's protection racket. What citizen would dare to report misconduct at the risk of being charged tens of thousands of dollars if the investigating agency doesn't support the complaint? What Cheh's proposal would do is shut OCF down as an investigative agency. If anything qualifies as malicious, misguided mischief, it is this.


Gary Imhoff

DC Watch


Edited by Slick Willie
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