Court halts ethics board’s action against top D.C. administrative law judge

March 12, 2014

A Superior Court judge has barred the District’s ethics board from moving forward with charges­ against the city’s chief administrative law judge and a deputy, ruling that the board has no jurisdiction to take action against them.

The judge, Brian F. Holeman, also ordered Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) to cease efforts to remove Mary Oates Walker from her job leading the D.C. Office of Administrative Hearings.

Holeman’s decision, granting a request for a pretrial injunction, came in a lengthy oral ruling Friday and in a brief written order filed Monday.

The ruling stops, at least temporarily, the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability from proceeding with trials of Walker and Kiyo Oden Tyson, the office’s general counsel, on multiple counts of ethics violations related to their business dealings together, as well as alleged contract steering and false statements to investigators.

Walker was appointed in 2009 to a six-year term by former mayor Adrian M. Fenty and subsequently hired Tyson, with whom she had a small real-estate business. Should the charges proceed to trial, the two could face fines, as well as potential bar sanctions.

Gray moved to remove Walker from her post shortly after the charges were filed last month, placing her on administrative leave. Walker’s interim replacement as chief judge, Wanda Tucker, then moved to fire Tyson.

Attorneys for Walker and Tyson have vigorously disputed the claims, saying the two have been the victims of a smear campaign by some of the subordinate judges­ in the office.

But they have also disputed the board’s ability to take action against them, arguing that under city law the board has no power over “independent agencies,” such as the Office of Administrative Hearings, that are not under the direct control of the mayor. Nor, they say, can the board police conduct that took place before the legislation creating the board became effective in April 2012 or take action against high-level “excepted service” employees such as Walker.

Holeman, according to a transcript of the Friday hearing, accepted virtually all of those jurisdictional arguments, saying the law authorizing the ethics board was ambiguous.

Given the board’s broad powers and ability to level serious sanctions, “there would be an expectation of clarity as to what persons, positions or entities are designed or intended by the legislature to be subject to these provisions,” the judge said. “It is simply not clear in the statute as it currently reads.”

Anthony M. Conti, an attorney for Walker and Tyson, declined to comment Wednesday.

Darrin P. Sobin, director of government ethics for the board, said the ruling was on a “technical point of jurisdiction,” not on the underlying merits of the charges levied against Walker and Tyson. “We obviously disagree with the ruling, and we are examining our appellate options,” he said.

Attorneys for the city filed a notice of appeal with the court Monday.

Should Holeman’s ruling stand, it could have a drastic effect on the powers of the young ethics board. A D.C. Council bill that would clarify that the board has jurisdiction over independent agencies, among other things, has not moved out of committee.

Walker remains on administrative leave, receiving her $166,000 yearly salary and benefits.

Tucker, the interim chief judge, appeared before a council committee Wednesday for a routine oversight hearing.

She did not address the charges­ against Walker or the pending litigation, saying the Office of Administrative Hearings was “going through a transition period,” but said she planned to “build a team approach” to improving the agency’s operations.

The agency has been riven by a years-long clash between Walker and her allies and a group of junior judges in the agency who have criticized her management. Tucker was among 15 judges who signed a letter in June 2012 denouncing Walker, setting off the chain of events that led to the ethics charges filed this year.

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.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Local