D.C. judge fights ethics charges, says she’s the victim of disgruntled employees

Charged with a passel of ethics violations, the District’s chief administrative law judge responded Thursday by challenging the legal basis for the charges and seeking to undermine claims that she steered a city contract to the now-husband of a business partner and lied to investigators about it.

Mary Oates Walker faces 19 counts of misconduct, including violations of conflict-of-interest rules, using public office for private gain and obstructing an official investigation. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) moved last week to remove Walker from her post atop the D.C. Office of Administrative Hearings, a job she has held since 2009.

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In a 62-page response filed with the city ethics board Tuesday, Walker said she is the victim of a cadre of subordinate administrative law judges who have resented her efforts to reform the office and who have sought to discredit her on numerous occasions.

Anthony M. Conti, an attorney for Walker, said the papers filed Thursday represent a “substantial body of evidence” that refutes the charges levied by the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability.

“We plan to mount a vigorous defense to the allegations to ensure that people like Mary Oates Walker who come to work for the District government to turn around its failing agencies are not run out of office by reluctant bureaucrats and don’t fall victim to election-year politics,” he said.

Darrin P. Sobin, director of government ethics for the board, declined to comment, citing the ongoing nature of the case.

The new filing portrays Walker as a diligent attorney tasked with reforming an underperforming agency marked by an “extensive and delinquent backlog of cases” as well as “other dysfunctional practices.”

Her more vigorous management, she claims, is what led 15 junior judges to sign a letter to Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) in June 2012 accusing her of an imperious style and raising questions about how a $43,000 office-moving contract was awarded to a company owned by the future husband of one of her top aides.

Walker’s filing notes that the contracting matter was twice reviewed by investigators — by the District’s inspector general and by a law firm hired by the Gray administration in response to the 2012 letter — and that in both cases, investigators found no grounds for punitive action. It also includes statements from two deputies involved in the move who said that Walker never suggested using the contractor in question.

The allegations that Walker lied to board investigators, the response says, are rooted in “vague and imprecise questions” posed by the board as well as a factual misunderstanding: Prior to questioning, Walker said she was given incorrect information about the status of a bank account, which she recounted to investigators and learned was incorrect only after being confronted with the inconsistency. The filing includes a statement from a bank official confirming Walker’s account.

The matter is set for trial before the three-member ethics board in March. The proceeding could result in significant fines and trigger sanctions from bar authorities.

But attorneys for Walker and the aide — Kiyo Oden Tyson, who is facing 10 ethics charges — are seeking to keep the matter from advancing that far, challenging the jurisdiction of the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability to bring charges.

That body, they argue, does not have the legal authority to police “independent agencies” — departments, like the Office of Administrative Hearings, that are not directly subject to mayoral control. Should that argument prevail, the board’s charges would be rendered legally void.

Attorneys for Walker and Tyson made that argument to a Superior Court judge Thursday, asking for a temporary restraining order blocking the city from moving toward their termination.

Judge John H. Bayly Jr. did not grant the request for a temporary stay, but he did indicate that the jurisdictional question was “somewhat unclear and ambiguous” and would likely have to be resolved later in the process.

 
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