November 21, 2013

D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan’s temporary memory lapses appear to have developed into full-blown amnesia. The city’s top lawyer can’t remember who is his client: the mayor or D.C. residents.

Here’s a hint for him: Remember who’s paying your salary. Unfortunately, the interests of residents have been low on Nathan’s list.

In a debate last month over the city’s tax-lien sale process, Nathan argued that delinquent homeowners should not retain equity in their homes, regardless of how little they owe the District. Last week, despite D.C. residents’ demand for a clean and honest government, he stepped in the way of a federal investigation into political corruption. Nathan declined to provide U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. documents related to a $7.5 million contract settlement reached in 2011 between D.C. Chartered Health Plan and the District government.

In 2011, Chartered was owned by Jeffrey Thompson; he’s the person who allegedly provided $653,000 to help finance an off-the-books campaign on behalf of Vincent C. Gray’s mayoral bid the year before. That “shadow” operation was critical to Gray’s win.

Thompson has not been charged with any crime. Gray (D) has claimed he did nothing wrong. Several people close to Gray or attached to his campaign have pleaded guilty to felonies and misdemeanors during the current federal investigation.

There were tons of questions about the Chartered settlement when it was reached. At one point, Thompson’s company owed the city $12 million. Then Gray arrived in the mayoral suite, and it was all hash browns and bacon. In addition to the settlement, Chartered received an overall rate increase, putting millions more onto its plate. Nathan has defended the settlement, asserting that it was “negotiated and recommended by career lawyers” in his office and “approved by the federal government.”

Ironically, Nathan has lobbied the D.C. Council during the past year to approve campaign finance reform that would reduce the amount of money a contractor could contribute to a candidate. He has argued that step could eliminate the city’s pay-to-play culture.

So, if he understands the potentially corrupting link between contractors and politicians, why all the fuss about Machen’s request?

In a letter to Machen — a copy of which Nathan’s spokesman would not provide me but was summarized in a news release — Nathan asserted that the documents requested by Machen are “the very heart of the attorney-client and work-product privileges” and “consist primarily of correspondence within [the office of the attorney general] and with our client agency concerning litigation and negotiating tactics .

Is he more concerned with territorial prerogatives than ridding the city of fraud and abuse? Has he morphed into a version of his predecessor, who was blasted for serving as the executive’s attack dog? When Gray was chairman of the D.C. Council, he disapproved of what he perceived as former attorney general Peter Nickles’s penchant to protect then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and executive-branch agencies. Consequently, Gray and his colleagues pushed for the creation of an elected attorney general — one, they said, who would remember he works for D.C. residents.

Nathan has suggested getting the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to review the documents requested by Machen to determine whether they are privileged. Nathan’s spokesman told me that there has been no response to his proposal. He also couldn’t tell me how long such a review process might take should the judge agree.

Has Nathan taken a page from the book of Thompson’s lawyer Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., who has engaged in a variety of exquisite delaying tactics, including a request for the Supreme Court to intervene?

Truthfully, Nathan shouldn’t be anywhere near this case. Not long after Gray was elected, Sulaimon Brown alleged that he had been paid cash by Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign and promised a job if he remained in the primary race ostensibly to trash the incumbent. Upon hearing those allegations, Gray immediately called for an investigation. The city’s inspector general declined to open a probe. Nathan also took a pass, suggesting it wasn’t appropriate for him to conduct the investigation. But his office promised investigative agencies that it would provide “full and prompt access to D.C. government records, as well as to personnel with knowledge of these matters.”

If Nathan has honored that commitment, as he has claimed, why stop now? Does it have anything to do with the fact that Machen’s office has proved cash was provided to Brown, as Brown had claimed? Brown certainly secured a job — although he was fired during a larger controversy over early hiring decisions of the Gray administration.

Before his termination, however, Brown had been placed in the Department of Health Care Financing — the same agency that signed off on the settlement agreement with Thompson.

See why Machen might want to know more?

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com