Correction: An earlier version of this commentary stated incorrectly that, under Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s proposal, the D.C. attorney general would have a staff of “more than 400 lawyers.” That figure refers to the total number of personnel, including both support staff and lawyers. The following version has been corrected.

April 15, 2013

I appreciate The Post’s call [editorial, April 10] for “thoughtful consideration” by the D.C. Council of the mayor’s proposal to restructure the attorney general’s office after it becomes an elected position next year, as well as its conclusion that the proposal “cannot be easily dismissed.” Unfortunately, the way that the editorial characterized the plan could lead to misunderstandings of its purpose and effect.

The proposal, which was developed by my office and ultimately reviewed and approved by Mayor Vincent C. Gray, would strengthen, not weaken, the attorney general’s office. This plan would provide subpoena powers that the office does not currently have, and it would allow the agency to focus more attention on litigation, both affirmatively, against any fraud committed against the District by public officials or private individuals, and defensively, to protect the government from unwarranted lawsuits by private claimants. The office would continue to prosecute all juvenile offenses and certain adult misdemeanor offenses. Alas, it has no felony jurisdiction — and has never had it for adults.

By saying that the proposal would “strip” the attorney general’s office of lawyers who serve as counsel to executive-branch agencies, The Post wrongly implied that this would somehow make the office weaker or less effective.

Rather, this change would allow the mayor — accountable to voters for the policies, budget choices and pledges upon which he or she was elected — to continue to execute those policies through appointed agency directors. They, of course, would greatly benefit from legal advice from someone who is not beholden to an elected attorney general who could be a political rival of the mayor’s. The proposal would also allow agency directors to appoint and compensate their own lawyers, while freeing the attorney general of the time-consuming task of selecting and monitoring agency counsels.

This structure works well in the federal government, where the appointed attorney general does not supervise Cabinet departments’ legal teams, and in most states that have elected attorneys general. It was the structure that existed in the District until 1998.

A key point: As is the case now, the elected attorney general would issue legal opinions interpreting D.C. law that would be binding on the executive branch. Thus, the concern of opponents that the proposed change would produce a “bifurcated approach” on legal issues is unfounded.

The attorney general would continue to be the definitive legal authority in the District, while in-house lawyers working for agencies reporting ultimately to the mayor would help those departments carry out the mayor’s programs in accordance with the law. A new mayor’s office of legal counsel would coordinate the work of the agency lawyers and ensure uniformity.

Under the mayor’s proposal, all of the prosecutors and civil litigators with the responsibility for guarding against fraud or misconduct would remain with the elected attorney general, who would have a staff of more than 400 with enhanced powers. That is the system the electorate wanted and expected when it voted for an independent, elected attorney general. The mayor’s sound proposal should be adopted by the council.

The writer is the D.C. attorney general.

Continue reading