By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 24, 2007; A01
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.
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.
To other city officials, however, Nickles's authority, and Fenty's endorsement of it, has threatened to harm the government.
Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said Nickles has made "a number of bad decisions." As an example, he pointed to Fenty's order, at Nickles's urging, that all city e-mail be purged after six months, a ruling the mayor rescinded after public protest. Mendelson, head of the Committee on Public Safety, also said Nickles did not have the authority to sign Lanier's contract before the mayor was sworn in.
"I do have a problem with the mayor's general counsel overstepping his authority," Mendelson said. "He does not represent the District. He represents the mayor. The fact that he does not understand that speaks to a flaw in his judgment."
Nickles, who oversees two deputies and an assistant, works in a spacious, ornate office on the third floor of the John A. Wilson Building. Although more remote and private than Fenty's crowded "bullpen" office around the corner, Nickles's suite on a recent day was visited by a series of high-ranking city officials, including Lanier.
An avid triathlete in his younger days, Nickles, now with white hair and wire-rimmed glasses, has a wet suit hanging behind his office door, next to a navy pinstripe suit jacket. His walls are adorned with abstract landscape paintings from his eldest son, John, along with pictures of him and his three children competing in races.
In 1993, he and his two sons teamed up to place second in the Race Across America, a bicycle competition they completed in six days and six hours, with Nickles going head over handlebars in the final stretch on the cobblestone streets of Savannah, Ga.
"Everything stops -- the cops stop, the sirens stop, my team stops. They said 'Pops!' I get back on my bike, and we limp to the finish," Nickles recalled, adding wistfully: "We were gaining on the first-place team."
Nickles loves to win. During his 43 years at Covington, Nickles built a reputation, and a sizable bank account, as a hard-charging, skillful corporate litigator. He represented large corporations, including Kerr-McGee, a chemical company, and Asarco, a mining company.
Elie Honig, who worked as a Covington associate under Nickles, recalled a case when an Asarco-owned plant in Peru was sued in the United States under international human rights law for allegedly contaminating children. Nickles got the case dismissed.
Nickles was considered prickly, demanding and difficult. One former colleague recalled seeing Nickles's name on a list, distributed by Covington associates, of the top five partners to avoid.
"He was much feared," said Honig, who admires Nickles. "He does not go by the new, more sensitive ambiance a lot of firms want. If you're not tough and can't churn out high-level work quickly, you're out. And he won't get rid of you in a nice way."
The roots of Fenty's relationship with Nickles go back almost 40 years, when Nickles met Phil and Jan Fenty, the mayor's parents, on Squirrel Island, Maine, where the two families were vacationing. In hindsight, the timing of their meeting seems like an omen: Jan Fenty was pregnant with Adrian.
Over the years, the families saw each other during the summers, and Nickles, who grew up in New York as the grandson of Greek immigrants who owned a restaurant, became a sounding board for Adrian, who became interested in law, Phil Fenty said. Nickles later became Adrian Fenty's attorney, representing him in a case in which Fenty was sanctioned by the D.C. Bar for failing to properly guard the assets of an elderly client in 1999, the year Fenty won a D.C. Council seat.
Phil Fenty said he played no role in his son's decision to appoint Nickles. "I was shocked and overjoyed," he said. "Knowing Peter all these years . . . it's terrific he will be there to help Adrian."
Along with his corporate duties, Nickles devoted significant time and resources to pro bono work, helping social service groups file lawsuits against the D.C. government on behalf of jail inmates, mentally disabled people and troubled youth. The cases stretched on for years, but Nickles won significant concessions from District agencies.
It was Nickles's combination of experience in the corporate and public interest sectors that Fenty had said would make him an asset to the city. Social services aren't getting much of his time lately, according to advocates who have worked with him.
Phil Fornaci, director of the D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project, said he was disappointed in October when a judge threatened Fenty with contempt for the city's failure to set a cap on the number of prisoners at the D.C. jail. According to Fornaci, Nickles said he was preoccupied with other city business, namely the mayor's takeover of the public schools.
"It was very difficult to get his attention," Fornaci said. After the contempt threat, however, Nickles called Fornaci and agreed to a cap of 2,164, except under "exigent circumstances."
That's when, Nickles said, the attorney general's lawyers got involved, bogging down the process by negotiating the meaning of "exigent" with Fornaci's lawyers. "I called up Phil and said, 'You and I have an agreement. We know what it means. Let's get the lawyers out of here,' " Nickles said. It was the kind of move that frustrated Singer.
In the spring, Nickles was chastised by U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman for repeatedly showing up in court and talking during two cases concerning D.C. public schools' failure to provide adequate programs for special education students. But Ira A. Burnim, counsel for the plaintiffs in the Blackman-Jones special education lawsuit, said Nickles has a personal commitment to make the agencies do a better job and the power, bestowed by Fenty, to make it happen. "He made a really extraordinary effort to get the agency to comply," said Burnim, who recently reached a settlement with Nickles.
Nickles said he won't seek the attorney general's job permanently because he lives in Great Falls, and Cabinet officials must live in the District. But he is intent on putting his stamp on the agency.
"What you pay for in a good lawyer is judgment," Nickles said. "I could go practice law across the street, but I wanted the mayor to know that I wanted a job where I could advise him."
Nickles is used to getting what he wants. On an office bookshelf is where he keeps the engraved award he and his sons picked up for that 1993 bicycle race: It's a hammer.
Staff writer Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.