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In a Close Vote, D.C. Council Confirms Nickles as Attorney General

By Hamil R. Harris and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 19, 2008; B04

The D.C. Council voted 7 to 5 yesterday to confirm acting Attorney General Peter Nickles, with Chairman Vincent C. Gray casting the deciding vote after telling his colleagues that he had stayed awake at night wrestling with the choice.

The vote came a day after the council's Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary voted 3 to 2 to disapprove Nickles's nomination, pointing to its report, which raised questions about Nickles's management style, his close ties to the mayor, and his judgment in major cases and on personnel issues.

During two hours of debate, council members described him as "rude," "irascible" and "aggressive." But the most important adjective was "qualified."

"The question that comes down to me: Is this man qualified to be attorney general? He is eminently qualified," Gray said.

The chairman's speech was measured as he weighed Nickles's pros and cons and talked about his sleepless nights. When Gray described Nickles as "eminently qualified," several people in the chambers packed up their belongings as if leaving a game that had just been clinched.

Gray was joined by members Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), David A. Catania (I-At Large), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). Voting against were Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5). Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) voted present.

The alignments threw out recognizable alliances. Gray's vote was contrary to his contentious relationship with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

Nickles, a friend of the mayor's parents, has been a divisive figure since he entered the Fenty administration as general counsel in January 2007. Fenty appointed him acting attorney general after Linda Singer, who confidantes said was upset with Nickles's meddling in her office, resigned in December.

As acting attorney general Nickles has aggressively moved on issues, whether supporting police checkpoints in high-crime areas or working on a compromise with child welfare advocates to try to keep the city's embattled Child and Family Services Agency out of receivership.

Fenty (D) said in a statement that the administration was "extremely pleased" with the vote.

Later, outside his office, the mayor said: "I believe that the city council and the mayor have the same goal, and that is providing the best service to the residents of the District of Columbia. . . . [Nickles] will make some decisions that people will agree with and decisions that people will not agree with. He will make every decision that is best for the residents" of the city.

Nickles did not respond to calls seeking comment yesterday.

The opposing council members had tried to sway their colleagues.

Mendelson said his rejection of Nickles came down to the issues of "conflation and judgment." Nickles's predecessors acted independently of the mayor, Mendelson said, and in terms of judgment, he has been one of the lead agents for the mayor to fire city workers. "Mr. Nickles is a great general counsel to the mayor, but he should not be attorney general," he said.

Barry, a former mayor, recalled that when he first led the city, he created a general counsel to avoid a conflict of interest with the attorney general, then known as the corporation counsel. "What bothers me is that the line between policy and legal representation has been greatly blurred," he said.

Cheh said Nickles is not only fiercely loyal to the mayor, he is unwilling to listen to both sides and does not reside in the District. "Would the people of the state of Virginia accept an attorney general who lived in Maryland?"

In defense of Nickles, Catania, said: "Is he perfect? No. Has he become his own worst enemy? Yes. But to suggest that this man is not qualified is absurd."

Schwartz urged her colleagues to look at changing city law, which she said has no guidance on how independent the attorney general should be from the mayor.

An appointed attorney general is unusual, according to the National Association of Attorneys General. Forty-three states elect attorneys general. The District's system of the attorney general being a mayoral appointee falls in line with Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Wyoming, where the governor appoints the attorney general. After the vote, Schwartz said: "I would rather have him on our side than against us. He is an effective and aggressive advocate, but he has to be the lawyer for all of us and not just the mayor."

In other business, the council passed preliminary legislation to stabilize the funding level for the city's program for first-time home buyers by making sure that at least $50 million is available. In addition to passing the Housing Production Trust Fund Stabilization Amendment Act, the council passed the Housing Regulation Amendment Act, which insulates the city's rent administrator from being fired by the mayor.

"If it were not for the HPAP program, I would not be in my house today," Thomas said.

Even though the council passed the housing bills introduced by Barry, Gray said the money might not always be there. "We need to recognize that we are going to have to make some difficult choices," he said.

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