D.C. Attorney General Fires 11 Staff Members

Attorney General Peter Nickles, left, has been criticized by D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson.
Attorney General Peter Nickles, left, has been criticized by D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson. (James M. Thresher - The Washington Post)
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By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 23, 2008

The D.C. attorney general's office told 10 lawyers and a manager this week that they are being fired to help close a $3 million deficit in the office's fiscal 2009 budget. The cuts are also being made because of the workers' poor performance and as part of an effort to transform the agency into what interim Attorney General Peter Nickles called a "first-rate law firm" with "strong, young, able stars."

The purge, Nickles said, is only the beginning and is part of his overhaul of the $101 million operation. Lawyers are required to wear jackets at all times, must submit reports to him each week about their casework and will soon have to clock in and out, he said.

"There's been no dress code," Nickles said. "We've had a lot of bluejeans being worn, and that's not appropriate for a professional office." He said that timecards and weekly reports will allow him and his deputies to "get a sense of what people are doing."

A performance review process Nickles instituted shortly after he took over the office in December determined the employees identified for termination, he said. Deputies and supervisors looked at "who the stars are and who is not up to that star capacity," Nickles said.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, said he supports firing employees who are not up to par. But he said they deserve a proper appeals process, which Nickles said would be followed.

Steven J. Anderson, president of the union that represents nine of the lawyers who were fired, said the union plans to challenge the terminations. He said he thinks all of the lawyers had received "satisfactory evaluations."

"It may be the way things are done at big law firms," Anderson said. "I don't think it's a good way to run civil service."

In addition to the vacancies created by the 11 dismissals, 19 open positions in the office will not be filled in order to meet the $3 million savings goal, Nickles said. A list of the 30 jobs shows that more than a third are for trial lawyers and other workers in the office's public-safety division.

Mendelson has criticized Nickles's residence in Virginia, because city employees are required to live in the District. In a May 1 budget report, Mendelson's panel wrote, "The Committee has strong concerns because this is continuing to foster an atmosphere of flux and instability that will certainly have an adverse effect on the agency's employees and operations as a whole."

The deadline for Nickles to find a city residence is approaching, but he said he has not decided whether he'll stay in his post. "I have until the end of June to decide," he said.

Nickles, a longtime friend of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's (D), replaced Linda Singer as attorney general in December. Sources said she left out of frustration that Nickles meddled in the business of her office, usurping her authority.

The office is responsible for a range of legal issues, including the prosecution of juvenile criminal cases, the enforcement of child-support laws and the negotiation of real estate agreements.

Nickles said he thinks morale is up with the changes he has implemented. "If people think I'm moving too fast, too vigorously or in the wrong direction, I hope they can persuade me, because I'm willing to listen," he said.

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