Nathan accuses council members of ‘political coercion’


You’re on notice, D.C. Council: Irv Nathan will not be pushed around. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

So you think you can write a strongly worded letter, David Catania and Mary Cheh? Well, so can Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan.

Nathan responded aggressively yesterday to the two D.C. Council members’ week-old letter asking him to revise his opinion on the arcane property tax dispute that has raised questions about Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi’s management of tax collections.

The AG has not taken kindly to the suggestion that he revisit his views, suggesting that Catania (I-At Large) and Cheh (D-Ward 3) are engaging in improper “political coercion” by doing so.

“Apparently, you did not like our opinion, since it did not accord with your pre-conceived notions,” Nathan writes. “[Y]ou ask that we give you a new opinion letter restating your views as ours. In other words, as a famous wit once said: ‘When I want your opinion, ... I’ll tell you what it is.’”

He goes on to compare the council members’ request to the debate over the Justice Department’s legal justifications for torture during the Bush administration.

More seriously, this is precisely the problem that many of us perceived about the torture memos produced by the Office of Legal Counsel of the U.S. Department of Justice during the Administration of President George W. Bush. Those opinions, while far more consequential than one about a recordation tax, smacked of political coercion, rather than dispassionate legal analysis. They appear designed to suit the preconceptions of the requesters of legal advice to justify actions the requesters had taken or wanted to take. I do not intend to have this office succumb to any political pressure to revise a fully considered legal opinion that is legally sound.

We have given you in writing our legal opinion, and we remain convinced that it is correct. There is nothing in your August letter that we had not considered previously, and nothing in it convinces us of any error in our analysis.

Nathan later adds: “Since you seem so interested in my advice, I am quite disappointed that you seem loathe to take it.”

Note that Nathan, former high-ranking Justice Department official and counsel to the House of Representatives, previously reached for torture imagery in his recent defense of the Harry Thomas Jr. settlement.

In any case, Nathan holds strong to his view that even if the text of a 2001 law makes it clear that additional taxes should have been collected, the legislative history of the law muddies the issue to the point that Gandhi was justified in not collecting it. But Nathan suggests that if Gandhi’s office changed its interpretation of the law, as some 2007 e-mails suggest he did, he should have told the rest of the government about it: “I believe prudence, due deference to the Council and the Mayor and good judgment suggest that such notice should in the normal course be provided.”

UPDATE, 2 P.M.: Catania said it was “regrettable and beneath the office of the attorney general” to compare his letter to the Bush torture memos.

More broadly, Catania defended his letter’s own legal analysis: “We actually cited the law. If you read the attorney general’s letter, there is no single citation to the law. It’s an opinion,” he said. “It is not a legal opinion.”

“We’re still waiting for a well-reasoned, well-researched opinion on his behalf,” he added.

Catania also said Nathan’s letter did nothing to clear up questions about whether or not Gandhi collected the additional recordation tax prior to the 2007 e-mails. He said he will direct Inspector General Charles Willoughby to investigate: “I want to know whether or not we collected this tax, and if so, how much.”

The letter in full:

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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