It's difficult to be surprised by anything the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance does. After all, it exonerated Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry when he used public funds for a sole-source contract to a paramour. Still, OCF's ruling and fine of $18,500 against Save DC Now was stunning and could have a chilling effect on citizen participation in future elections. Moreover, they testify to the agency's discriminatory enforcement of local laws.
OCF Director Cecily Collier-Montgomery defended her agency, arguing Save DC Now flagrantly disregarded an earlier order. The fine, she said, will "encourage compliance with the reporting requirements by those who participate in the process."
It's more likely, young people won't get involved at all, fearing they'll be slammed by the government acting on behalf of special interests or favored politicians, as happened with Save DC Now.
The committee was a member of a loose coalition that advocated voters, unhappy with the choices in the November General Election, write in Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's name; it appears nearly 28,000 voters took that advice. During its campaign, the group initially used posters left over from Fenty's primary bid. Dorothy Brizill, co-founder of DC Watch who supported then-Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray's mayoral candidacy, filed a complaint with OCF. Save DC Now was ordered to stop using those materials.
Brizill claimed she witnessed 32 violations after the "cease and desist" order. She said, earlier this week in her online blog, she "also encouraged attorneys with the Gray campaign to investigate and report sites to the OCF themselves." Collier-Montgomery said there were "no less than 37 violations."
"We didn't have manpower to cover all those polls," countered Josh Lopez, who was a field coordinator for Save DC Now, which primarily used social networking sites in its organizing.
Lopez said after OCF's stop order, the group purchased campaign materials. It stapled some of those signs to "the back of the Fenty posters. But, nothing said Fenty 2010. The committee complied with the order."
In an era where people have been encouraged to recycle everything, Save DC Now's prime sin was it did just that.
"The public has the right to disclosure by those participating in the election process through the identification of the person or committee responsible for campaign literature," said Collier-Montgomery. While she has the power to "modify, rescind, dismiss or suspend any fine" she said she wouldn't take that action.
"What is the message we are sending to young people," asked Lopez, who recently announced his candidacy for the at-large seat on the council left vacant by Kwame Brown's ascent to the chairmanship. "We were just trying to fight for something we believed in."
Residents who want to help Lopez and his team pay the fine or who want to offer general support in this fight with OCF can reach him at email@example.com. They also might consider contacting Collier-Montgomery (Cecily.Collier-Montgomery@dc.gov), reassuring her they won't be intimidated and won't permit a government agency to squash participatory democracy in this city.
Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jonetta Rose Barras's column appears on Monday and Wednesday. She can be reached at email@example.com.