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Fenty Friend And Counsel Walks Hard, Steps on Toes

"I wanted the mayor to know that I wanted a job where I could advise him," says Peter J. Nickles, left, shown with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). Nickles, Fenty's general counsel, has frustrated some officials with his forceful approach.
"I wanted the mayor to know that I wanted a job where I could advise him," says Peter J. Nickles, left, shown with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). Nickles, Fenty's general counsel, has frustrated some officials with his forceful approach. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
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By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 24, 2007

Peter J. Nickles didn't wait until he was formally appointed as D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's general counsel before getting to work.

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On New Year's Day, before Fenty (D) was sworn in, Nickles was on the phone with city lawyers in the attorney general's office. A day later, he signed an employment agreement with Cathy L. Lanier, whom Fenty was to appoint as police chief, even though he did not have the statutory authority to do so, according to a D.C. Council member.

Nickles, 69, described by colleagues as brusque, smart and supremely self-confident, is not a man known for patience or for hesitation in pushing his authority to the limit. It is an approach colleagues said that Attorney General Linda Singer, who thinks Nickles meddled in her turf, cited as the reason she resigned from Fenty's Cabinet last week.

"Everything's fair game," Nickles said Thursday, three days after Singer quit. "I've never had anybody put any limitations on me. I've never had a situation where I said to the mayor or city administrator that I'd like to do this or that and they said no."

A longtime corporate litigator at Covington & Burling and friend of Fenty's family, Nickles has become arguably the mayor's most powerful deputy, with authority ranging beyond the traditional confines of the general counsel's office to policy, personnel and politics. As if to prove Singer's point, Fenty named Nickles to replace her as acting attorney general, and Nickles said he is considering revamping the team Singer hired to argue the city's high-stakes appeal to the Supreme Court to defend its handgun ban.

In many ways, Nickles's rise is not surprising, because his approach is similar to the mayor's: Move fast, make quick decisions and don't worry about the undertow of resistance that follows. His powers, however, have come at the chagrin of other city officials and community activists who say Nickles, a mayoral appointee not subject to approval by the D.C. Council, should not enjoy such unabridged authority.

Fenty defended his general counsel, contending that it would be "tough to find anybody who has the litigation experience, who is as renowned in their field, who has as much experience working with the District government as Peter has."

As is customary for a general counsel, Nickles was heavily involved in crafting an agreement to cap the jail population and in contract negotiations with Lanier, Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. But Nickles also has played pivotal roles in the mayor's takeover of the schools and the effort to bail out Greater Southeast Community Hospital.

Then there were his successful moves to block several key cases Singer had hoped to pursue against lead paint manufacturers, online hotel reservation companies that allegedly underpay city taxes and banks involved in the D.C. tax office embezzlement scandal.

Asked about his disagreements with Singer, Nickles all but dismissed her experience. Singer, 41, a Harvard University Law School graduate, had not practiced law in 13 years as head of a nonprofit group before joining the Fenty administration.

"The pattern is, when ill-prepared cases come on my desk, . . . I say, 'Now, whoa!' " Nickles said. "This is what I did for 40-some years. I both brought cases -- big cases, multi-hundred-million-dollar cases -- and I defended those cases. If you haven't done those cases, you have no idea about the legal fees and the costs you can generate and the diversion of management time and resources."

Singer declined to comment.


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