Council clears way for voters to elect D.C.'s top lawyer

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 3, 2010

District voters, instead of the mayor, would be allowed to pick the city's top lawyer, under legislation approved yesterday by the D.C. Council.

The measure, approved on a 12 to 1 final vote, comes amid ongoing tension between the council and Attorney General Peter J. Nickles, an appointee and longtime friend of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

The council's vote will probably be popular among District residents, according to a new Washington Post poll that found a majority of respondents would prefer to elect their attorney general. The poll showed that 55 percent of residents favor a citywide vote for attorney general and that 33 percent want the mayor to continue to choose the chief lawyer.

Council members stressed that the legislation was designed to inject independence into the office -- not to target Nickles -- and to bring the District in line with the 43 states that have elected attorneys general. The city's lawyer would be elected to serve a four-year term and required to have practiced law in the District for at least five of the past 10 years.

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said holding an election would make the attorney general more accountable to residents, instead of the mayor. "What person who is an employee of the mayor is going to turn around and demand that he execute a law the council has passed? There's an internal conflict," he said.

The election would not take place until 2014 and would not apply to Nickles, according to council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), the bill's sponsor. For the change to take effect, Congress would have to amend the city's Home Rule charter.

A Fenty aide said the mayor would review the bill before taking a position. But Nickles strongly opposes the shift and said it would have "disastrous" results. The mayor, he wrote in a letter Tuesday, would have to hire his own team of lawyers and there would be a "continuing struggle between the Attorney General's lawyers and the mayor's lawyers."

If Fenty rejects the bill, the council could override his veto with nine votes.

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) was the lone vote against the measure, in part because he said Congress may balk at the measure if Nickles and the administration are opposed.

During debate, the council also rejected on a 10 to 3 vote an amendment by council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) that would have instead transferred the powers of the U.S. attorney's office to an elected district attorney. Voters approved a referendum in 2002 that would have shifted the responsibility for prosecuting local crimes to an elected district attorney. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has introduced similar legislation, but Congress has not acted.

Separately, the council said Tuesday that it would turn to the courts for help to compel one of its star witnesses to testify in the ongoing probe of the mayor's parks and recreation contracts. The council has issued a subpoena for Sinclair Skinner, Fenty's friend and former paid campaign worker, who was a subcontractor on the projects under investigation. But Skinner did not show up.

Council members backed a measure Tuesday to ask a D.C. Superior Court judge to enforce the subpoena, which they say has been served. The council also said it would try to have Skinner banned from doing business with the city until he complies.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said Skinner appears "quite cozy" with government leaders, "yet when it comes time to answer to the public about his behavior, he thumbs his nose at the council."

When told of the council's action, Skinner's attorney, A. Scott Bolden, joked, "It's going to be a showdown. Are they going to do it at high noon on Friday?"

Bolden said that Skinner was never served the subpoena and that he has "little information to contribute." But Bolden said his client would appear if he is "properly served."

Before wrapping up Tuesday, the council also backed emergency legislation sponsored by council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) to require the mayor to immediately detail plans to close an estimated $223 million gap between spending and revenue in the current budget. In a letter to Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi on Monday, Fenty said his administration is taking steps to balance the books, including putting restraints on agency spending.

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