Loose Lips

Failure to Appear

No candidates have declared for nextyear’s attorney general election, but there’s already a frontrunner. You can’t go within 50 yards of a law school without hearing his name. The rest of the legal community is lining up behind him. Even current Attorney General Irv Nathan has given his endorsement.

LL’s talking, of course, about “the lawyer’s lawyer.”

At a University of the District of Columbia panel last month meant to recruit candidates, the hypothetical “lawyer’s lawyer”—think Atticus Finch—was mentioned so many times as the best choice for D.C.’s first elected attorney general that LL lost count. The difficulty of establishing all the precedents for the office, navigating the relationship between working for the mayor and working for the people—absent any real candidates, only the lawyer’s lawyer is up to the task. That’s where we are now with this race: making up people to run for office.

But former AG Peter Nickles isn’t convinced about the redemptive power of the lawyer’s lawyer. “The folks who will run for the office are not going to be lawyer’s lawyers,” Nickles tells LL. “They’re going to be politician-lawyers.”

And Nickles knows from politician-lawyers. As ex-Mayor Adrian Fenty’s attorney general/body man, Nickles chose investigative targets that matched up conspicuously well with his patron’s political enemies. He tried to push Cora Masters Barry, the estranged wife of Marion Barry, out of her Congress Heights tennis center, and pursued then-D.C. Council Chairman Vince Gray over the height of a fence around his house during his campaign to unseat Fenty. Gray, of course, won anyway.

“Peter Nickles managed to irritate, frustrate, and generally piss off everyone in the District government and beyond,” says Shelley Broderick, the dean of UDC’s law school.

The potential for another Nickles was the bogeyman for D.C. residents who voted by a 75-25 margin in 2010 to amend the District’s charter to make the position elected. But after two years of scandals, shadow campaigns, and Sulaimon Brown, a political attorney general looks like the least of the city’s problems—and old enemies of the elected attorney general office are seizing the chance to hamstring the position. With the strength of the once-appetizing job in doubt, it’s no wonder that no flesh-and-blood candidates have appeared.

People who always opposed an elected attorney general are enjoying the moment. The Washington Post editorial board, which remains constitutionally incapable of disagreeing with Nickles, declared in April that the District’s “chickens have come home to roost.” At a D.C. Council hearing last week, would-be mayor Jack Evans asked if he could just postpone the attorney general election for a while. (Because the election was ordered by an amendment to the charter, he can’t.)

First up for antagonists of the elected attorney general: hobbling the office before it’s filled. This would be an impressive feat, given that the District’s attorney general doesn’t have that much power to begin with. U.S. Attorney Ron Machen will still be in charge of most criminal prosecutions in the District, including headline-grabbing public corruption takedowns. That leaves the attorney general pursuing drunk drivers and not much else.

That’s probably for the best, because the attorney general also has comically limited subpoena powers. Since the passage of a 2010 bill reducing the agency’s ability to file subpoenas—another hangover from the days of feuding between Nickles and the D.C. Council—the attorney general’s office has only filed a handful of criminal subpoenas. Under the new rules, the attorney general can’t subpoena people who are already under indictment or when the alleged crime occurred more than three business days before the subpoenas are issued. Forget the lawyer’s lawyer—the attorney general needs to be a Minority Report-style precog.

But things could get even less attractive for lawyers eyeing the top spot. Gray and Nathan, with the support of District heavies like Nickles and former Mayor Anthony Williams, are pushing a bill that would move lawyers working for individual District agencies outside of the attorney general’s office. Their thinking is that an elected attorney general would also be a wannabe mayor, looking to undercut his “boss” at every opportunity.

Nickles describes the field of potential attorney general candidates as “terrifying,” but wouldn’t tell LL more. Whoever it is Nickles is afraid of, here’s his nightmare scenario: Imagine if ex-D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee had needed to ask for legal advice from a DCPS attorney worked for an elected attorney general who disagreed politically with Fenty, instead of Nickles. The DCPS counsel, looking to curry favor with the attorney general, could have just refused to help Rhee with her agenda, Nickles claims. (Your feelings on how nightmarish that is may vary depending on what you thought of Rhee’s work, of course.)

If the legislation passes, the attorney general’s staff would shrink—Broderick estimates it would drop from around 300 to 100. The elected attorney general’s job description would be reduced to prosecuting quality-of-life crimes and defending the District in lawsuits. But without control over agency lawyers, the attorney general wouldn’t know about potential grounds for lawsuits until they’re already filed, according to Walter Smith, the executive director of policy nonprofit DC Appleseed.

Smith, who worked in the Office of Corporation Counsel—the forerunner to the attorney general’s office—in the late 1990s, when agency attorneys still answered to department heads, says taking lawyers from the attorney general will mean a return to the bad old days. “To change all of that would be to dismantle improvements that took sort of 15 years to put in place,” Smith says.

LL has to ask: Is this what residents approved by a margin of 60,000 votes in 2010? Even if voters weren’t considering who the Department of Employment Services’ general counsel’s boss would be when they cast ballots, it’s hard to believe that they expected half of the job to disappear. Smith jests that the charter amendment to change the attorney general position lacked one disclosure: “If you vote for this, we’re going to significantly downgrade the office."

Expect to start seeing names by November, when candidates can pick up their petitions for the Democratic primary. Whoever gets the job, though, will be stepping into a position whose power is slipping away. UDC’s Broderick, who has been privately encouraging attorneys to run, puts a cheerful spin on it: “It would be a wonderful, wonderful set of challenges.”

Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to lips@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 650-6925.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Comments

  1. #1

    Write-in campaign for Mara Verheyden-Hilliard!

  2. #2

    Great post, Will.
    Nickles was right. And many of the folks he pissed off (by doing his job, duh) have been busted by Machen, or are on their way to that end.
    The remedy for Nickles was to vote Fenty out. Not to create an independent power center that will inevitably be filled by a Mayoral-wannabe lawyer/political hack. That was a huge strategic mistake that could only be made in a highly partisan environment and, in reality, was a tactic in the aspersion campaign against Fenty. That the same people who helped enact it are now backtracking is an implicit admission of this.
    Oh. And the remedy for Nickles graft-ridden felonious adversaries and their deluded defenders is Machen.

  3. #3

    Great post LL! Entertaining and informative. (Nice photo, too.)

  4. #4

    Residents didn't know what to expect. In fact, we're no different than those in the rest of the country who support/vote down referendums.

    In this instance, voters were absolutely right to vote in favor of referendum thanks to nepotistic relationship between the then-Mayor and AG. We had no choice.

  5. #5

    THIS MOFO SHOULD HAVE BEEN 1ST ON BRO MACHEN'S LIST!

    IF IM NOT MISTAKEN IT IS BECAUSE OF HIM THAT THE DCAG IS AN ELECTED POSITION. WHAT DC RESIDENT ACTUALLY GIVES A DAMN ABOUT WHAT THAT CLOWN NICKLES THINK OR OPINES?

    HE LIVED IN VIRGINIA CLEARLY VIOLATING THE LAW WHILE HE WAS AG OR WAS HE JUST THE FENSTER'S MOUTH PIECE? HE OBVIOUSLY FELT LIKE HE DIDN'T HAVE TO ABIDE BY THE LAW. HE GAVE FAGGIE FENTY FUCK BUDDIES THEIR MONEY BACK WHEN THEY WERE ORDERED TO FORK OVER ILL GOTTEN FUNDS FROM DC COFFERS.

    BLACK FOLK SHOULD HAVE RAN NICKLES SORRY ASS OUTTA TOWN AFTER TENNIS COURT FIASCO THAT ALSO PRODUCED THE MOST DISRESPECTFUL MOVE BY A SO CALLED BLACK MAN (FENTY) IN STIFF ARMING TWO OF THE MOST CELEBRATED ICONS (MS ANGELOU AND MS HEIGHTS) IN BLACK HISTORY.

    MUTHA FUCK PETER NICKLES!

  6. #6

    I never get tired of people insisting that the Fenty administration was corrupt. It's especially amusing in the context of so many of those who said it the loudest drawing federal charges themselves.
    It's like Waiting for Godot. Meanwhile, life happens as they wait.

  7. Concerned Senior
    #7

    Is this drez dude for real???????

  8. #8

    Placing the name Atticus Finch(fictional character or no) so close to Peter Nickles' name is a travesty of justice
    (fictional concept or no).

  9. Read Scott Martin
    #9

    What noodlez said

  10. #10

    hello world

  11. #11

    Thank you noodlez for telling it like it is.

  12. #12

    I recall Peter Nickles saying that the city's housing authority broke the law when they failed to get the D.C. Council's approval before awarding $82 million in contracts for parks and recreation projects. Contracts that landed, unsurprisingly in the hands of Adrian Fenty's friends and frat brothers.

    Immediately, thereafter, he said that the city should honor the contracts. Not exactly the "law-enforcement" type of attorney to be getting an opinion from. Laws, to him, are a nuisance to be avoided.

  13. #13

    He did not use the words "broke the law". Further, using the DCHA as a pass through for contracts was something the Williams Administration did on a regular basis. Both because it streamlined the contracting and procurement process (something the current administration continues to struggle with) and, I suspect, because it freed the contracting process from the incessant political meddling of the DC Council which, then as well as now, regularly seeks to install their own political supporters as subcontractors.
    Contracting shenanigans have been a problem in DC for a long, long, time. And what Fenty did by running them through DCHA as a means of ensuring schools and parks were built on time and on budget is exactly the same thing that Anthony Williams did. You are either ignorant or dishonest in your characterization Fenty's acts as "illegal". Nickles not only never said that, but no one did. Not even the council (which was mightily pissed) used that term. And, again, some of those who screamed the loudest (here's looking at you, HTJ, KB, MB, VCG) are in a whole mess of hot water of their own.
    Much of it for contract and other graft.

  14. #14

    REZ-I'M SURE THE WILLIAMS ADMIN DIDNT PASS THRU CONTRACTS OVER $1MIL CIRCUMVENTING AND VIOLATING THE LAW AS THE FLENSTER WAS JAMMED FOR.

    ON TIME AND ON BUDGET? REALLY? SLIM THE WATER YOUR ARE CARRYING FOR THAT FAILED ADMIN HAS LEAKED ALL OVER THOSE GLASS SLIPPERS OF YOURS.

    ONE CITY.

  15. #15

    noodlez Sure he did. That fact was even raised at the time.
    Look- I'll step away from the Fenty defence for a minute and reframe my argument in a more productive way. Rightly or wrongly (it doesn't matter at this point), Fenty and Nickles pissed off a bunch of people. One of the ways those people responded was to try to split the mayor (the elected head of the governernment) from the city's Atty General. This they were able to do.
    There is a saying: You can't control anyone but yourself. The folks who supported and passed this legislation should have thought ahead to a day when they'd need to deal with the results of their efforts. This is an action that they took in response to Fenty and Nickles. One made wholly superflous by Fenty's 2010 defeat. But the mess that they created in their myopic zeal remains. And now they are backtracking. Hell, even Gray is trying to split the baby by retaining half the office under his control. I can't blame him for that. It's the least damaging option he has left for himself.

  16. #16
  17. #17

    Nickles: Recreation contracts broke the law

    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/dc/2009/10/nickles_recreation_contracts_b.html

    DC Housing Authority Broke the Law, AG Says-Fenty and aides skipped a step

    http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/Contract-Millions-Illegal-DC-AG-Says-65900382.html

  18. #18

    Adrian Fenty was dictatorial, if you like Stalinistic tatics you would love Adrian Fenty. I don't prefer a paternalistic Mayor, I much prefer one who actually listens to those who elect them.

  19. #19

    REALLY DOWNTOWN??? SLIM THOSE GLASS SLIPPERS YOU KEEP ENVISIONING OF THE FAILED FENTY ADMIN HAVE TURNED INTO SOME RUN DOWN 5 YEAR OLD TATTERED TRETORNS THAT TRULY REPRESENTS THOSE 4 YEARS OF HELL FOR FOLK EAST OF 14TH STREET. LET IT GO DUDE LET IT GO!

    I WILL GRANT YOU THE WILLIAMS ADMIN WAS PULLED ON THE CARPET ABOUT NO-BIDS AND NITWIT GANDY’S FREE FLOWING PAYMENT PROCEDURES HOWEVA YOU ARE COMPARING APPLES TO ORANGES. LOOK THE $425 MIL YOU SPEAK OF WAS ACCUMULATIVE. THE PROBLEM WAS RECOGNIZED AND FIXED. NOTHING SHADY!

    DREZ HERE IS THE KICKER!! FENTY WAS ON COUNCIL WHEN THESE ISSUES WERE RAISED. SO HE KNEW IT WAS WRONG AND DISHONEST! WHERE WILLIAMS MAY HAVE KNOWN ABOUT THESE PRACTICES FENTY WAS DIRECTLY INVOLVED IN CIRCUMVENTING & VIOLATING THE LAW AND STEERING CONTRACTS TO HIS PERSONAL FRIENDS! YOUR KOBE BRYANT “SHAQ DID IT TOO” ARGUMENT DOESN'T WORK.

    I WOULD EVEN GRANT YOU FOLKS (ME INCLUDED) OVERREACTED IN SPLITTING MAYOR AND AG. THIS WAS IN ADVANCE OF THE FLENSTER SOMEHOW WINNING A SECOND TERM BECAUSE EVERYONE SAW AND RECOGNIZED THE RELATIONSHIP FENTY & NICKLES HAD WAS FOUL AND REMINDED EVERYONE OF BUSH-CHANEY, DUMB & DUMBER AND THE BLIND LEADING THE BLIND.

    I STAND BY MY INITIAL REQUEST IN THAT BROTHER RON SHOULD HAVE INVESTIGATED FENTY AND NICKLES IM SURE HE WOULD HAVE UNCOVERED SOME WRONG DOING AND GOT A PLEA AGREEMENT.

    ONE CITY.

  20. #20

    You're a funny guy, noodlez
    Wrong, but funny. You just keep on hoping the feds will see enough wrong in the Fenty admin to investigate. Just keep on Waiting for Godot. Meanwhile...
    Since we're talking about Nickels, isn't Nickels the one who put a kibosh on the whole running contracts through DCHA thing? Why blame him? Because he said that a contract, once awarded, is valid? That's just sound legal reasoning. The city would have been on the hook for huge damages otherwise. No Atty General or Corporate Council worth their salt would have allowed for that. Really, you are continuing to conflate political arguments with legal ones.

  21. #21

    The people spoke loud and clear. The didn't like Adrian Fenty. If you are of the minority that did. Do you. He is over and done never coming back again. Move on!

  22. #22

    I have moved on.
    Just not in the way that HTJ, Kwame, Michael Brown, and soon to be VCG have.

  23. #23

    @DCShadyBoots#17
    Good memory. I stand corrected.

  24. #24

    ... And there will be no AG elections for years to come. The backtracking is complete. This was never about what was good policy or government. It was always only political.
    Whatever anyone's feelings about Fenty- consider that his opponents were willing to change fundamentally change the nature of the DC government- for the worse as their votes now admit- as a political strategy. One that, combined with a huge off the record shadow campaign that led to a grand jury investigation and multiple guilty please, and is still ongoing.
    It's indefensible.

  25. #25

    I'm on record -- from the outset -- as saying the elected AG notion was a bad idea. A reminder to those who supported it because they hated Nickles/Fenty: the law specifically exempted Nickles in the event of Fenty's reelection. Duh.

  26. #26

    @ TH It was always only politics. I mean, they didn't even bother to think about how to work it these past two years. If it was about policy, we'd not be in this place.
    SMH. This foolishness is more telling than folks realize.

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