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Brazil Cleared In Use of Staffers

No Laws Broken, City Office Rules

By David Nakamura and Serge F. Kovaleski
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 11, 2004; Page B01

D.C. Council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large) did not violate any city laws when he asked staff members to perform services for his private law firm, the city's Office of Campaign Finance ruled yesterday.

In a 10-page report, Kathy S. Williams, the office's general counsel, found that Brazil aides performed the work voluntarily and properly documented their work with leave slips.

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Brazil "did not use his official position or the office . . . to obtain financial gain for himself or his private law firm," Williams wrote. The aides were happy to do the work "as a favor given, with no expectation of compensation."

The probe was launched after The Washington Post reported in June that Brazil, who runs his own personal-injury law firm, used two lawyers on his council staff three times in the past several years to fill in for him in court and prepare documents for cases.

"I feel vindicated, very pleased," said Brazil, who faces two challengers in Tuesday's Democratic primary in his bid for reelection. "I'm sorry I had to undergo the activity surrounding it, being accused of something I never did."

The Campaign Finance Office is responsible for enforcing the District's standards of conduct regulations, campaign finance act, conflict of interest statute, financial disclosure statute and the city's lobbying laws.

In this investigation, Brazil could have faced penalties of $2,000 for any violation of the conflict of interest statute.

The Post reported that two council lawyers, Aimee Occhetti, who no longer works for Brazil, and James Abely said they used leave or vacation time whenever they did outside legal work for Brazil. Abely said he was not paid for the work, and Occhetti said she might have been but was not certain.

In one case, Brazil had Abely appear for him at a mediation in D.C. Superior Court in November. Brazil's client was seeking more than $250,000 in damages from an automobile accident.

In statements to investigators for the Office of Campaign Finance, Abely said he always believed that Brazil was asking for a favor. There were other times when Brazil asked him to help in matters for his law firm and Abely refused, he said.

Brazil told investigators that he asked Occhetti to help his law firm believing that because Occhetti was a young attorney, she would be eager for the experience. Brazil added that he always told Occhetti he expected her to use her own time and provide a leave slip as documentation.

In an interview yesterday, Brazil said that he asked for the favors "in haste" because he was double-booked with council obligations.

"No matter if it is legal or not, I wouldn't ask them to do it again," he said. "It was very isolated events, but I don't want even the appearance" of impropriety.

The Office of Campaign Finance reviewed payroll records for Abely, Occhetti and another aide, Dora Rodrigues. Abely and Occhetti were interviewed.

When Abely appeared in court for Brazil last November, Abely told investigators that Brazil was on a trip to Brussels, with Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), to discuss trade issues. "Because the respondent was unable to return . . . he asked Mr. Abely to 'stand-in' for him," Williams wrote in her ruling. "Mr. Abely also stated that he took leave on the date of the mediation."

Occhetti said she performed law work for Brazil on one or two occasions and always took authorized leave, the report said.

Brazil said he is focused on winning reelection to the council. He is facing two challengers in the Democratic primary, Kwame Brown and Sam Brooks, but he declared himself confident.

"I'm concerned with winning this race and continuing to work to try to create jobs and affordable housing and revitalizing neighborhoods," he said. "Some [voters] may look at a headline and have a negative reaction, but enough people in Washington know my work and know my integrity."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company