Attorney General's Role Is Debated

By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh and Peter Nickles, the mayor's former general counsel, clashed repeatedly yesterday over whether Nickles had compromised the independence of the office of the attorney general by intervening in the office's legal affairs.

During a council hearing on legislation that would set a term limit for the attorney general, Cheh (D-Ward 3) raised questions about why Nickles had taken a role in deciding whether the attorney general should pursue litigation in some cases.

At one point, Cheh said the office appeared to have been no more than "a puppet of the mayor."

"I don't think anyone's a puppet," Nickles retorted. "I'm not a puppet. I believe after 45 years in the legal profession, I'm entitled not to be called a puppet."

Linda Singer, who served as attorney general for nearly a year, abruptly resigned last month, and aides cited differences with Nickles as one reason. After Singer left, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) named Nickles interim attorney general.

Council members said they believe that Nickles, as the mayor's general counsel, intervened in as many as seven cases.

Nickles testified for nearly two hours before the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, headed by council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large). The council legislation that calls for a term limit for the attorney general also outlines qualifications for applicants and would determine whether the mayor or the council would have the authority to terminate the attorney general.

Mendelson said he would like for the attorney general to become an elected position, as is the case in most states.

"It's about maintaining independence," he said, adding that Nickles has a "line drawn as close to the mayor as possible."

During yesterday's hearing, Cheh said that in several legal cases, Singer wanted to pursue litigation but Nickles decided not to proceed. She said that giving the appearance that the attorney general's office is being run from the mayor's office is "bad policy and an invitation to mischief."

Nickles said all the decisions came from the mayor and were not his actions alone. At times, he said, the attorney general asked him to make court appearances.

In one high-profile case, The Washington Post reported that Nickles ordered the attorney general's office to drop plans to sue Bank of America for its role in the city's tax office scandal.

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