Tommy Wells: Elected attorney general should retain control of city legal staff


Current D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan urged the council to allow lower-level attorneys to report to the mayor. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

When the District’s first elected attorney general takes office in January 2015, he or she would retain tight control over the city’s legal apparatus under a proposal set to be voted on by a D.C. Council Friday.

Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) is recommending his colleagues on the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee reject a proposal supported by Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan that would substantially change the city’s current legal structure, where agency lawyers report to the attorney general rather than to their agency directors or the mayor.

Under the Gray/Nathan plan, agency lawyers would instead report through the mayoral chain of command in a bid to preserve the mayor’s ability to implement his policy prerogatives in the face of a potentially hostile attorney general.

But Wells found that in such a system, “the independent voice pointing out pitfalls of law and ethics will be effectively eliminated.”

“Removing agency counsels’ ability to provide sound legal advice without fear of retribution will do nothing to stem the embarrassments of incompetence, corruption and graft the District government continues to suffer,” the committee’s draft report says. Having all agency lawyers report to the attorney general “ensures there is an independent voice focused on what the law requires, not what the Mayor wishes.”

“We need another check and balance,” Wells said in an interview.

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said the administration had not yet reviewed Wells’s report and declined to comment.

The Wells report also rejects the suggestion — made not only by Gray and Nathan, but also former Mayor Anthony A. Williams and other experts — that keeping agency lawyers under the elected AG would be a recipe for partisan gridlock, pitting mayors against aspiring mayors on a daily basis.

“This is an extraordinarily cynical view that anticipates an unrealistically high level of conflict between the Attorney General and the Mayor,” the report found. It added: “If the goal is to eliminate partisanship in the delivery of legal advice to agency heads, placing agency general counsel under the Mayor as opposed to the Attorney General does little other than replace one partisan for another.”

The Wells bill also makes amendments to campaign finance and elections law to add the new elected office of attorney general, paving the way for candidates to start campaigns and raise money.

With 10 months until the first primary election where attorney general will appear on the ballot, no person has publicly declared their intention to seek the office.

Update, 6:45 p.m.: Wells pulled the bill from the agenda Friday after it became clear the four other members of his committee preferred to move the original Gray/Nathan proposal rather than his own bill. Wells said he needed to “buy some more time to negotiate” with Nathan and his colleagues.

Meanwhile, Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said he is prepared to amend the bill or otherwise introduce legislation indefinitely delaying the attorney general’s election, a change made pursuant to a 2010 voter referendum.

“They’ve voted for things in the past, and the council’s voted to overturn them,” Evans said of the electorate.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · June 28, 2013