Former D.C. attorney general Robert Spagnoletti nominated to head ethics board

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray nominated former city attorney general Robert J. Spagnoletti to chair the city’s new government ethics board, a choice expected to lend considerable credibility to the newly created panel.

After coming under fire in recent weeks for moving too slowly to fill the positions, Gray (D) announced Tuesday the nominations of Spagnoletti and two others to the three-member panel.

(James M. Thresher/The Washington Post) - Robert J. Spagnoletti, shown in 2003, is D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s nominee to chair the city’s government ethics board.

The nominations come as government watchdogs are looking to the panel to help restore public confidence in elected officials after a spate of criminal and ethical misconduct at the John A. Wilson Building and in city political campaigns.

In the past month, a federal judge has sentenced former council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) to prison for stealing from the city, and two former campaign aides to Gray have pleaded guilty in a widening probe into the mayor’s 2010 election campaign. Meanwhile, federal authorities are also investigating D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown’s 2008 reelection campaign.

Gray and Spagnoletti fielded questions Tuesday about a potential conflict of interest because Spagnoletti served as the mayor’s personal attorney two years ago. “I represented the mayor on an isolated matter, which everyone knows was a fence around his house, which was gone and now is back,” Spagnoletti said to laughter.

Gray eventually paid a $300 fine and had to remove the $12,000-plus fence because it was too tall. When he became mayor, a new fence was installed for security reasons.

Spagnoletti said he weighed all potential conflicts of interest but is “absolutely sure” he can do the job.

In an interview on Monday, Spagnoletti said he was “honored to be asked” to lead the board because it is “going to serve an incredibly important role to make sure [D.C.] employees and public officials live up to high standards.”

“I do not intend to let my role on the board lead to a whitewash or papering-over of things,” said Spagnoletti, 49, who lives in Shepherd Park. “The board has incredible power. ... Unlike many other investigative boards that have limited authority, this board has authority, and used judiciously, it can can have a good bit of influence.”

In addition to Spagnoletti, Gray nominated Laura Richards, a lawyer and former regulator, and Deborah Lathen, a consultant and former official with the Federal Communications Commission, to fill out the board.

Both Richards and Lathen said Tuesday they were looking forward to serving. Richards, a Republican, said she accepted the nomination in the “spirit of bipartisanship.” Lathen said in an interview that she wants to look at best practices in other cities for guidance on how the new board should govern.

In December, as the D.C. Council tried to contain the fallout from several ethical lapses, it created the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability as part of its rewrite of city ethics rules. The board will be responsible for investigating alleged ethical violations by public officials and employees and for imposing sanctions, including recommending impeachment or possible criminal prosecution.

After the council created the panel, Gray was expected to nominate its members in early spring. But Gray encountered considerable difficulty identifying quality candidates. The Washington Post reported in March that several high-caliber candidates, including retired federal judges, declined Gray’s invitation to serve on the board.

Because of the delay, council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) proposed emergency legislation in April that would have stripped Gray of some of his power to make the appointments. But Bowser, the chief author of the ethics bill, dropped her proposal after Gray promised that nominations were forthcoming.

But the administration did not contact Bowser about Tuesday’s nominations. “I haven’t seen anything official,” she said in an interview, noting that she learned of the nominees through The Post. Asked how she felt about being uninformed, she said, “That’s the mayor’s prerogative.”

Gray said he talked to Brown, the council chairman, on Monday.

Spagnoletti’s nomination sends a signal that the embattled mayor is reaching back to a calmer period of D.C. government for help in overseeing ethics.

From 2004 to 2006, Spagnoletti served as attorney general under Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). Spagnoletti, a former president of the D.C. Bar, is a partner at Schertler & Onorato in the District.

The board, which will be backed up by a full-time director and as many as seven other employees, will assume some responsibilities of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. Spagnoletti said he and the other board members have to get through the confirmation process before they conduct a search, but he said they may begin taking “solicitations of interest.”

The Board of Ethics and Government Accountability will investigate all non-election-related complaints against District employees and public officials as well as oversee financial disclosure forms. If the board determines that a violation has taken place, it can issue fines of as much as $5,000 in each case.

Spagnoletti said Gray called him about two weeks ago and asked him to serve.

From 1990 to 2003, Spagnoletti was an assistant U.S. attorney, serving as chief of the Sex Offense and Domestic Violence unit.

In 2003, Williams tapped Spagnoletti as D.C. corporation counsel, the term used at the time for top legal position in D.C. government. A year later, Spagnoletti persuaded Williams to change the office’s name to attorney general to better reflect the agency’s responsibilities.

In the job, Spagnoletti was widely respected for having a sharp legal mind and generally avoiding controversy. At the time, Spagnoletti was the highest-ranking gay official in the Williams administration.

Spagnoletti said he doesn’t think it will be a conflict for him to be responsible for policing a District government in which he once served, noting that he had “to make calls” when he was attorney general. He also said Lathen and Richards come to the board without experience in District government.

Spagnoletti said he told Gray the same thing he told Williams when he was asked to serve as corporation counsel.

“I come in into this with my integrity, and I intend to leave with my integrity,” he recalled telling Gray and Williams. “I value my integrity, and I will place a high emphasis on the board, and whatever findings we make, we will do it with integrity.”

 
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