Self-Styled Mediator Has Work Cut Out for Him

By Nikita Stewart and David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 23, 2008; DZ01

At his confirmation hearing last week, Acting D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles described himself as a mediator who can bring people together.

For example, Nickles said, there is the sour relationship between D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), and between Brown and Deputy Mayor Neil O. Albert.

On the Fenty front, Nickles said, much can be resolved with a chat at Ben's Chili Bowl. He recalled being at the home of half-smokes and running into Marshall Brown, Kwame Brown's father.

"The gentleman said, 'Mr. Nickles, I'm Kwame Brown's dad. Why can't Kwame and the mayor get along better?' " Nickles testified.

Not so fast. Marshall Brown, informed of Nickles's remark, said, "Isn't that interesting? . . . I may have met him, but I don't remember that conversation."

Kwame Brown did not want to comment.

"I'm going to leave that one alone," he said, adding that being a mediator for the mayor "sounds like a job of the general counsel." (That's a reference to council criticism that Nickles acts more like a general counsel than an attorney general.)

Brown had plenty to say, however, about himself and Albert. Brown is chairman of the Committee on Economic Development, and Albert's deputy mayor position puts him in charge of economic development and planning for the administration. Brown has complained that he can't get information from Albert.

"Peter has to sit in on the meetings or Neil and I can't meet," Brown said. "Maybe he has made Neil understand it's illegal to withhold information."

They Came to Praise Him

Speaking of Peter J. Nickles, he pulled out some heavy hitters to support him at the confirmation hearing: former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, now a member of Nickles's old law firm Covington & Burling; former Army secretary Togo D. West Jr.; Police Chief Cathy Lanier; Carol Fennelly, Hope House director (and mother of Carrie Brooks, Fenty's chief of staff); and Shelley Broderick, dean of the University of the District of Columbia law school.

All five had worked with Nickles in a variety of capacities and spoke glowingly of him as a man of intelligence, integrity, a strong work ethic and a passion for serving people, especially the poor. Tagliabue called Nickles his "mentor and teacher."

He recalled joining Covington as a young associate 40 years ago and meeting Nickles, who showed him the ropes. Later, when Tagliabue was named to run the NFL, he called on Covington, and Nickles, to handle a major anti-trust lawsuit filed by the players union that went all the way to the Supreme Court. In that case, the NFL had attempted to establish a "developmental squad" of players who would be paid $1,000 apiece. The union objected, saying it would limit free trade. Nickles handled the case, which the NFL lost in federal court.

But, on appeal, the NFL ultimately won the case in the highest court, a case another Covington lawyer handled.

Tagliabue was unconditional in his support of Nickles, saying, "His record of success makes him one of the most accomplished lawyers of his generation."

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) was impressed by Tagliabue's appearance. He produced a football from behind the council's podium, held it aloft and said, "When I was an aspiring quarterback, I got this football with your signature on it."

Then, Evans asked Tagliabue the pressing question of the day: "Mr. Tagliabue, how are you going to help us get the Redskins back" in the District?

Without missing a beat, the former commish responded: "By working with Mr. Nickles."

Not everyone was impressed with Nickles. Several activists are testifying against him, including Tenants Advocacy Coalition Chairman Jim McGrath and Alison Gill, head of the D.C. Trans Coalition, an advocacy group for the city's transgender community.

McGrath said his organization has been turned off by Nickles's brusque, dismissive manner. That group also objected to the mayor's firing of former D.C. rent administrator Grayce Wiggins, who housing activists said lost her job because she supported tenants in a dispute against a politically connected developer. The activists have been angered by Nickles's actions in defending the administration's position, including declining to answer questions from the council at a recent hearing on the matter.

"It was stonewalling of Watergate caliber," McGrath said. "It was truly troubling."

Others complained about police checkpoints that were set up two times in the Trinidad neighborhood, a strategy that Fenty, Lanier and Nickles said was aimed at stemming a spate of homicides but that some activists said violated civil rights.

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