By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010; B05
D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) on Thursday called on Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to fire Attorney General Peter Nickles, arguing that Nickles is serving not as the city's top lawyer but as "the mayor's political hatchet man."
In a new and aggressive attack on the Fenty administration's ethics, Gray said in a statement that Nickles cannot be trusted to be impartial because he has been "protecting the mayor's cronies" and working as an "enabler of the mayor's cronyism."
"His politicization of the office is inappropriate at best, and illegal at worst," said Gray, who supported Nickles in a heated 2008 council confirmation vote. "And by protecting the mayor's cronies, he has put the interest of the mayor squarely ahead of the interest of his actual client."
Gray, who faces Fenty in this year's Democratic mayoral primary, injected Nickles into the race on the same day that the city's auditor raised concerns about the attorney general's impartiality.
Fenty, meanwhile, announced that he is taking to the airwaves in a move that observers say is designed to turn around a campaign sputtering in the face of a strong challenge from Gray. Starting Friday, Fenty will air three 15-second campaign TV commercials that highlight his record on affordable housing and job creation east of the Anacostia River.
Fenty is signaling that he plans to use his campaign's hefty cash reserves -- more than $3 million in the bank as of last month -- to try to set the agenda for the remaining two months of the primary campaign.
"We're knocking down these false notions that the mayor hasn't delivered east of the river, doesn't care about small business or listen to residents," said Sean Madigan, a Fenty spokesman. He said Fenty has no intention of firing Nickles.
But Mo Elleithee, a Gray strategist, said Fenty is "in for a rude awakening" if he thinks that 15-second spots will improve his image.
Gray's decision to attack Nickles is part of strategy to raise questions about how the Fenty administration has conducted itself.
According to the city code, the attorney general is appointed by the mayor to "conduct all the law business" of the District while performing "professional duties as required of him or her by the mayor." But Nickles, a friend of the Fenty family's, has long been dogged by questions about whether he is independent enough.
The latest flare-up centers on Nickles's decision to pay $550,000 to a firm with ties to Fenty to settle a dispute over city contracts that a special council committee is investigating. Nickles has also publicly challenged Gray's record as the city's director of human services in the early 1990s.
In an interview Thursday, Nickles strongly defended his record and suggested that the recent heat wave had rendered Gray unstable. "I think the heat must have gotten to the chairman," Nickles said. "I am sorry to see that Gray has got so caught up in the political campaign that he issues these kinds of political statements."
Nickles defended his decision on the settlement with Banneker Ventures, whose contract to oversee the construction and renovation of parks and recreation centers was terminated last year after the council began an inquiry into how they were awarded.
Banneker is owned by Omar Karim, a friend and fraternity brother of Fenty's, and some council members are outraged that Nickles settled the case before their investigation is completed. The council plans a hearing on the settlement Friday.
Nickles said the mayor did not play a role in his decision to settle with the company, which contended that its contracts were terminated unfairly. Settling made it possible for stalled parks and recreation projects to move forward, Nickles said.
"My duty is to the citizens of the city, and I don't check with the mayor, and I don't check with anyone else in the city," Nickles said. "As a lawyer who has been experienced for 45 years, I think I know what I am doing, and when I don't, I consult legal experts."
As to Gray's remarks about cronyism, Nickles said he had never met Karim. He also said he plans to investigate Gray for possible cronyism because of alleged ties to the winner of the city's multimillion-dollar lottery contract.
"He should have picked on someone else, because I am not going to stand by and have these outrageous assertions be made," Nickles said of Gray.
But critics of the mayor are seizing on Nickles's dual roles as the city's top lawyer and a Fenty adviser. Last month, the council authorized a November referendum to ask voters whether the city should start electing its attorney general in 2014.
That call for an elected attorney general appeared to get a boost Thursday when the city's independent auditor, Deborah K. Nichols, told a council committee that Nickles has made it more difficult for her office to assess the performance of the government because he interferes with the flow of information from the administration.
"Everybody has to have a system of checks and balances. When you are the check and the balance, there's a conflict," said Nichols, who has worked in the auditor's office since 1982. "When you are the spokesperson, the attorney general and the investigator, there's a conflict."
Staff writers Mike DeBonis and Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.