Before other events intervened, last week’s big D.C. politics story might have been Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) finally making appointments to the fledgling Board of Ethics and Government Accountability.
Some controversy emerged in that his choice for chairman, former D.C. Attorney General Robert J. Spagnoletti, previously served as Gray’s personal attorney and as a member of his mayoral transition team.
Though Spagnoletti has an impeccable reputation dating back to his time as an assistant U.S. attorney in the city, can that outweigh the appearance of his association with the city’s top politico?
The person whose opinion matters more than most is D.C. Council Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who is responsible for holding hearings on Gray’s three nominees and shepherding them to the full council.
In a NewsChannel 8 appearance today, Bowser seemed optimistic that Spagnoletti would work through any conflict-of-interest concerns, calling the nominees collectively a “good set of folks.”
”It’s very important that this board is independent,” she told host Bruce DePuyt. “They’re independent from the mayor, independent from the council. Any links between them have to be carefully explored.”
For the board to have any chance of being operational by Oct. 1 as planned, council members will have to ratify Gray’s picks — which also include retired government lawyer Laura Richards and telecom consultant Deborah Lathen — before they break for summer recess in mid-July.
Bowser noted that Spagnoletti said last week that he can manage any potential conflicts of interest: “That’s something I have to be assured of and can explain that to my colleagues and the residents of the District of Columbia.”
But one ethics expert is suggesting that the bigger issue with Spagnoletti’s nomination isn’t his relationship with Gray, but his law firm’s dealings with the city.
Robert Wechsler, research director for the CityEthics nonprofit, wrote in a blog post last week that while Spagnoletti is “[c]learly a first-rate attorney ... there are potential conflict situations galore.”
Spagnoletti’s biography on the web site of his law firm, Schertler & Onorato, says he “regularly advises individuals and businesses on how to navigate a variety of legal issues through the District of Columbia government and negotiates on their behalf with District of Columbia agencies and officials.”
That, Wechsler writes, should set off warning bells: “Acknowledging that he has too many relationships and too many possible conflicts to effectively sit on the ethics board, he should turn down the mayor’s offer, and explain to the public why it is important that he do this.”