WASHINGTON — It was a sunny Friday morning when federal agents in bulletproof vests and FBI windbreakers pulled up to the brick home on a quiet cul-de-sac. As spectators watched from across yellow police tape, the agents loaded an SUV and a motorcycle emblazoned with decals onto a flatbed truck and took them away.
The home that the FBI and Treasury agents searched this month hardly stood out from others on the street, but its owner did. The target was Harry Thomas Jr., a Washington City Council member who is accused of siphoning more than $300,000 in taxpayer money meant for children's sports.
The surprise search revealed that a federal investigation was in full swing. But the inquiry into whether Thomas improperly used public money was only the latest in a series of damaging misconduct accusations against city officials.
The incidents have cast a pall over the government and have hastened efforts to polish the city's tarnished reputation. The City Council passed an ethics overhaul package Tuesday, including a new process for expelling a member accused of serious wrongdoing.
"To make these type of improvements that we've made today shows our commitment to making sure that ethics reform is well and alive," said Kwame R. Brown, the chairman of the council, who has himself been accused of mishandling campaign money.
Critics of the city government, though, say that such an overhaul is long overdue and that the package the council passed, on a 12-1 vote, does not go far enough. The one vote against the package came from Councilman Tommy Wells, who represents a district that includes downtown neighborhoods as well as rapidly gentrifying poorer neighborhoods.
"I truly believe that this bill does much, but not enough," Wells said before casting the lone vote against it. Longtime watchdogs of the government in the nation's capital have been disheartened by the string of revelations over dubious dealings among elected officials.
"It's a very frustrating time," said Dorothy Brizzil, executive director of a group called DCWatch. "It's a situation that I, as a resident of the District of Columbia, thought that I'd never have to deal with again. It's a source of embarrassment."
The city seemed to have hit its political nadir after Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. was secretly filmed smoking crack cocaine in 1990 and was imprisoned on federal drug charges. In an astonishing political comeback, he was later re-elected mayor; last year, as a city councilman, he was censured over corruption accusations.
After a humiliating period when Congress created an appointed body to run the city government, Washington seemed to be on the upswing, with a series of reformers intent on cleaning up. But that progress seemed to have been swiftly undone after the more recent scandals.
"We really feel like there's been a crisis in confidence brewing in the district this year," said Muriel Bowser, the councilwoman whose committee wrote the ethics overhaul. "There have been a number of scandals that have really shaken the public's confidence in how we do business."
Not long after Vincent C. Gray defeated Adrian M. Fenty in last year's mayoral election, another candidate claimed that he had been paid by Gray to criticize Fenty during the campaign and said he was offered a lucrative job in the administration after Gray won.
The man, Sulaimon Brown, was later dismissed from the position in the Department of Health Care Finance. Gray has denied the accusations, and a congressional report could not substantiate Brown's claim, which is reportedly the subject of a continuing federal investigation.
In February, the chief of staff for Councilman Jim Graham pleaded guilty to bribery for taking $1,500 from an undercover FBI agent.
Graham was also a target in the same sting operation and was offered $2,600. While he rejected the cash, he has been harshly criticized for not reporting it. Graham has admitted that he should have reported the money but denied that he considered it a bribe.
In July, the city's Board of Elections and Ethics referred a report about fundraising irregularities in Brown's campaign to federal prosecutors for investigation, after finding hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of discrepancies in donations and expenditures.
Brown called the scandals "distractions" that have not kept elected officials from their work.
"We've been moving the city forward," he said. "More has gotten done this year than I've ever seen in 12 months, despite the distractions that have been going on."
As far as the federal investigation, he said, "I look forward to it being complete and finished so that we can move on."
One focus of the council's ethics deliberations was constituent service funds, which allow council members to raise private money that they can spend on aid for constituents and on job-related expenses, like travel costs for events. Council members could take in as much as $80,000 for those funds; the legislation reduces that to $40,000. The council also wrangled over whether to forbid outside employment, a proposal that was roundly rejected.
But perhaps the sharpest language during the debate came over allowing the council to dismiss members accused of wrongdoing. Barry, the former mayor and a current councilman, was adamantly opposed to the measure, saying it amounted to "dictatorship." It passed over his objections.
Bowser said the scandals were probably "on people's minds" during the vote. It was a power that the council needed to have, she said, along with the ability to enforce the code of conduct.
"You have to be able to root out the bad apples," she said