The right choice to monitor D.C. ethics

June 28, 2012

LAST YEAR, the D.C. Council approved an overhaul of ethics laws that Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) signed on Jan. 29. The success of those reforms — whether they will really change the culture of city government or be just another set of rules to be ignored — will heavily depend upon a new board of ethics.

That’s why we think that Mr. Gray has made a good choice in selecting Robert J. Spagnoletti to lead the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability.

The appointment of Mr. Spagnoletti, D.C. attorney general from 2004 to 2006 and a former assistant U.S. attorney, is pending before the D.C. Council, which must consider him along with two other board nominees, Laura Richards and Deborah Lathen. Action by a council committee may come as early as Friday.

There is no doubting Mr. Spagnoletti’s qualitifications; he is a highly regarded lawyer who knows the District and its issues, and he has the experience and energy to manage organizations. His willingness to take on what everyone agrees will be the tough task (for a yearly stipend of $26,500) of starting up this board — writing rules, hiring staff, establishing policies — derives from a genuine desire to help the city’s government turn over a new leaf in how it conducts itself.

Questions have been raised over whether Mr. Spagnoletti would have conflicts of interest because, according to the law firm where he is a partner, Schertler & Onorato, he “advises individuals and businesses on how to navigate a variety of legal issues through the District government and negotiates on their behalf with District of Columbia agencies and officials.” The law establishing the ethics board clearly prohibits lobbying, broadly defined not just as someone who is required to register but to cover anyone who communicates directly with District officials in order to influence legislative or administrative actions. Mr. Spagnoletti also represented Mr. Gray, then council chairman, in his 2010 dispute with the city over a fence around his home.

These are legitimate concerns, but they can be assuaged if Mr. Spagnoletti recuses himself from ongoing cases and avoids any new ones that would pose a conflict. Government practice comprises about 2 percent of his firm’s work; at most, there are five cases currently being handled by Mr. Spagnoletti or his firm that would represent a conflict in the unlikely event they were to become subject of action before the board. He has said that he would recuse himself from those cases; he also said that he would avoid considering matters involving Mr. Gray in the “short term” because of his representation two years ago.

More significant is that Mr. Spagnoletti, once confirmed to the six-year term, would not engage in actions that would fall under the ethics law’s broad definition of lobbying. “I would not take on any representation that would allow use of my name or my legal opinions to be used to sway the D.C. government,” he told us. Included here are taking on clients that would pose a conflict, issuing legal opinions that could be shopped around or making the rounds to council members or other officials to urge certain action or policy.

Mr. Spagnoletti’s history provides compelling evidence that he operates on the straight and narrow. He should be confirmed.

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