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National Watchdog Group Jumps Into D.C. Budget Autonomy Case

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton accused the D.C. mayor and council of playing "corrupt political games." (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Judicial Watch, a national watchdog group, has inserted itself into the District of Columbia court case surrounding the Budget Autonomy Act, arguing the mayor and the District Council are wrong to support the act and are playing "corrupt political games." "I think if you look at Judicial Watch, you see that we do focus a lot on national issues, but over the years we have focused on local issues around the country," Judicial Watch attorney Michael Bekesha said in a Wednesday phone interview. "We’re an organization focused on the rule of law and we will bring lawsuits, tackle issues, whenever we think the rule of law is being violated. We think it’s going here. It’s happening."  

Judicial Watch signaled its intentions Wednesday, when President Tom Fitton said in a release, “Mayor [Muriel] Bowser and the D.C. Council are attempting a power grab to spend tax dollars without authority under law,” adding, “Our taxpayer client seeks to make sure no tax dollars are spent in violation of the well-established law that the Congress must appropriate the District of Columbia’s budget. D.C. taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for the corrupt political games of its mayor and its D.C. Council.”  

The case, which has exposed a rift between Bowser and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, is working its way through the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and stems from a disagreement over the act's legality. The Budget Autonomy Act would decouple the District's budget process from the federal appropriations process, though Congress would still be able to review the D.C. budget if the act took effect.  

Bowser and the D.C. Council support the act, while Racine and D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt argue it is not legal. Judicial Watch is siding with Racine and DeWitt, filing a motion to intervene in the case on behalf of D.C. resident Clarice Feldman.  

Asked about Judicial Watch's involvement in the case, Bowser's spokesman Michael Czin told CQ Roll Call Wednesday that Bowser is focused on defending the will of D.C. residents. "It’s a pretty straightforward issue. This is a ballot referendum that 83 percent of District residents supported," Czin said. He also said Judicial Watch should not be so quick to wade into local affairs.  

“Groups like Judicial Watch should probably have better things to do than try to deny people health care and interfere in a city’s budgeting process,” Czin said. “Lots of folks have different opinions on a lot of different issues. We just ask that folks respect the democratic process that we have here in the District.”  

Czin's reference to health care pointed to another D.C. court case involving Judicial Watch. The group filed a taxpayer lawsuit challenging Congress' status as a small business in the D.C. health care exchange. A D.C. Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit  in February, but Judicial Watch has filed a notice of appeal.  

Bekesha, who is working on the budget autonomy case, said the group first began exploring how to get involved in the case after Bowser switched the mayor's office position from that of her predecessor, Mayor Vincent C. Gray.  

Gray opposed the Budget Autonomy Act, which led to a lawsuit between the mayor's office and the D.C. Council. Bekesha said the decision to file a motion to intervene was "collaborative" with Feldman. "I think there was mutual interest from both us as well as the client,” he said.  

Bekesha said it was "outrageous" that Bowser altered the office's position. “She’s pretty much colluding with the Council and trying to do away and avoid the injunction by the District court," Bekesha said, pointing to a federal judge's ruling that struck down the budget autonomy law. Asked about evidence of such collusion, Bekesha said, “I think the pleadings speak for themselves. The mayor comes in, files a motion and the Council agrees with her. These are supposed to be opposing parties."  

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