Bond between D.C. mayor and city's attorney general has grown stronger through the years

By Mike DeBonis and Nikita Stewart
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 10:52 PM

When a young Adrian M. Fenty and his brothers were forbidden by their parents to consume meat, salt and sugar, they could count on family friend Peter Nickles to loosen that nutritional regime.

Nickles, like the indulgent uncle, had Sugar Pops cereal.

Their bond has only grown through the years. When Fenty embarked on a law career, his father asked Nickles to "watch out" for him. As an adult, when Fenty needed legal advice, Nickles represented him. And when Fenty became mayor, he turned to Nickles to be his general counsel and, later, attorney general.

Nickles, 71, has become Fenty's protector and enforcer. No other official so enjoys the trust of the 39-year-old mayor, which, combined with the authority of his office, has made him the most powerful unelected official in District government, eclipsing Fenty's deputy mayors and city administrators.

He has been called everything from Fenty's godfather to "consigliere" to "vice mayor," a gibe that he is the Richard B. Cheney to Fenty's George W. Bush. His supporters say he has harnessed the bureaucracy to bring needed change to the city. Critics say he has interpreted laws and policies in Fenty's favor and mishandled some cases. Both question whether he has contributed to the mayor's poor approval rating.

Though not as prominent as Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, he has also become an issue in Fenty's reelection campaign. D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, Fenty's chief opponent in Tuesday's Democratic primary, called for Nickles' firing in July after a series of escalating conflicts. In turn, Nickles, who made a successful career of suing the city, has raised questions about Gray's leadership as director of the Department of Human Services in the 1990s. His tenure has been so controversial that the D.C. Council pushed a long-sought referendum for an elected attorney general onto November's general election ballot.

"I think Peter Nickles is destructive," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), a Gray supporter who often criticizes Nickles and Fenty. "You don't have to antagonize everyone to do it [the job]. But that's what he does."

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said he has appreciated Nickles as "a rough-and-tumble, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners litigator," crediting him with helping to save United Medical Center in Southeast Washington and defending the council's gay-marriage legislation.

But he sees the other side. "He has become the de facto spokesman for the mayor, which some have viewed as politicizing the position," said Catania, who has not made a mayoral endorsement. "Some have raised the concern that there's a conflict between what's in the mayor's interests and what's in the city's interest."

Says Nickles, "I am completely apolitical."

A stellar resume

When he introduced himself to council members after Fenty's mayoral election, Nickles impressed many with his stellar resume - Princeton, Harvard Law, 35 years as a Covington & Burling partner, the D.C. Bar Association's pro bono attorney of the year - the last given for his known work suing the city on behalf of neglected mental patients, prison inmates and others.

Less known was Nickles's close relationship with Fenty, one that began when his parents met Nickles while vacationing in Maine in 1970 - while Jan Fenty was pregnant with the future mayor.

Nickles and Phil Fenty became training buddies, though they differed in their styles and diets. Nickles dons tailored suits, while Fenty's father is known for his Native American and African jewelry. And while Nickles enjoys the occasional Ben's Chili Bowl half-smoke - a nod to his family's history in the diner business - Phil Fenty kept no fatty or sugary foods in the family's Mount Pleasant home. "Anytime [the Fenty children] wanted to cheat . . . eat cereal with sugar, they could come over," Nickles said.

When Adrian Fenty decided to go to Howard Law School, "Phil said, 'Would you watch out for Adrian?' " recalled Nickles, who had been an adjunct professor there.

Thus Nickles began his godfather duties. When Fenty began his career in city politics as clerk of the council education committee, Fenty called him from time to time for advice on education matters. By 1999, as Fenty prepared to run for the D.C. Council, he neglected his duties as court-appointed guardian to an 88-year-old man, leading to bar discipline proceedings. Nickles served as his attorney, and in 2005, the Office of the Bar Counsel handed Fenty an "informal admonition," its lightest sanction.

Soon after Fenty was sworn in, Nickles emerged as second in command.

Fenty's first attorney general, Linda Singer, resigned in December 2007 and continues to decline to speak publicly about Nickles. But lawyers around the city say Nickles was running a months-long crusade to undermine her, and he finally succeeded. In one incident, less than a year into Fenty's term, federal authorities unveiled a massive embezzlement scheme in the city tax office. Singer went to work recouping what she thought she could, starting on a lawsuit against Bank of America, which had played a role in allowing the scheme to persist. Nickles, as Fenty's legal counsel, disagreed.

"Stop work on this," Nickles told her in a Dec. 6 e-mail. "[W]e are not rushing into lawsuits." Eleven days later, Singer left, and Fenty named Nickles to replace her.

But in his work as attorney general, Nickles has often found himself in a rush. He's kept the philosophy he employed as a feared corporate litigator: overwhelming force brought with overwhelming speed.

"Peter goes totally thermonuclear on you," said Frederick D. Cooke Jr., a lawyer who has litigated against Nickles and who held the job, then called corporation counsel, in the late 1980s. But, he said, Nickles sues with a goal in mind, and "he is certainly a person with which you can negotiate."

The tactics have often worked: When a dispute between a developer, the JBG Cos., and the Marriott Corp. threatened to derail a long-planned anchor hotel for the city's convention center, Nickles intervened with the parties, helping to bring an end to the stalemate, observers say. He also was the lead executive branch official organizing efforts to keep United Medical Center open amid financial crisis.

Fenty has said that Nickles has brought a set of professional skills that have served the city well.

"In terms of both management experience, litigation experience and legal experience, you can make a case that Peter Nickles . . . is as qualified as anybody we've ever had in the position," Fenty said at a recent debate.

But Nickles' tactics, put to work in politically fraught situations, have sometimes backfired.

Last summer, Nickles moved to evict a nonprofit group run by Cora Masters Barry, the estranged wife of D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), from the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, which the organization had helped build. The nonprofit fought the move, and a Superior Court judge, citing flimsy legal backing, tossed the eviction. The attempted eviction created one of Fenty's most notable political debacles.

"Peter has no sense of politics, and that's a good thing and a bad thing," Cooke said. "The problem is . . . if you've got a political tin ear, you need to have somebody around you who doesn't."

Nickles disputes that he has a "tin ear," saying that if he's seen Fenty "getting out of line," he has told him.

"Have we disagreed? Yes. I won't be specific," Nickles said. "He likes to say he's moving a hundred miles an hour. I say, 'Mayor, a hundred miles an hour sometimes violates the speed limit. Take it down to 70. Check to your left and to your right."

'The executive's turf

Nickles's role has transcended litigation; he's tackled the most controversial matters to cross Fenty's transom, with few bounds on his responsibilities. When faced with uncomfortable questions, Fenty has tended to say little and defer to Nickles.

When news reporters inquired about Fenty's travel to China and the United Arab Emirates in 2009, for instance, Fenty declined to answer questions, kicking the issue to Nickles. Nickles, in turn, issued a report revealing that foreign governments had paid for the trips. The payments, Nickles wrote, were "legally sufficient and in compliance with applicable law," but Fenty absorbed deep criticism for not immediately disclosing the donations.

Shortly afterward, questions arose about the city's donation of an ambulance and firetruck to a Dominican Republic town. Fenty and his communications office directed the matter to Nickles, who issued another report, concluding that city officials did nothing wrong and that the city "was operating with the very best of intentions." Left unmentioned was that two men close to Fenty - city development official David Jannarone and friend Sinclair Skinner - had played key roles in the transfer.

"It wasn't relevant," Nickles explained recently. But the omission helped fuel a council inquiry, which found no criminal wrongdoing but concluded that procurement rules had been circumvented.

Nickles has gone to some length to fend off the efforts of other governmental branches to venture onto what he considers the executive's turf.

The city auditor, Deborah K. Nichols, clashed with Nickles last year after he blocked her office from having unfettered access to a cache of records belonging to two now-defunct city agencies, invoking several legal privileges. Nichols, who reports to the D.C. Council, filed suit in Superior Court, cueing a rare interbranch showdown before the case was settled shortly before a court hearing.

Nickles has also played a role in the council's investigations of controversial parks and recreation contracts, management of which was awarded to a Fenty-linked firm, Banneker Ventures. In July, as a special counsel hired by legislators probed the contract award, Nickles signed a $550,000 agreement with Banneker, telling reporters that he did not consult with Fenty before settling the case. After news of the deal was released, Gray called for Nickles's ouster as he has cited the contract as evidence of "cronyism" on the campaign trail - less than two years after Gray cast the decisive vote confirming Nickles as attorney general.

The two also had a more personal run-in: Nickles kept a close watch this year on allegations that Gray had built an unpermitted, too-tall fence around his Hillcrest home. The city ordered its dismantling. "What's important in terms of public confidence is that public officials are treated the same as ordinary citizens," Nickles said, explaining his involvement in the matter.

Given a free hand

In between his stalwart defense of Fenty and his prerogatives, Nickles has been given a free hand to push the public-interest lawsuits that are the bread and butter for most attorneys general looking to make an impression.

Nickles embarked on a litigation campaign against city slumlords, leading to repairs at several of the city's worst rental properties. He proceeded to target used-car lots on Bladensburg Road NE and other locales, accusing them of being eyesores and, some, of being fronts for the drug trade.

More recently, Nickles proudly touts his role in ending a two-year rent strike among tenants of the Marbury Plaza apartments in Southeast Washington. Under the agreement brokered by Nickles, the building's owner will install a new roof and upgrade plumbing and heating and air-conditioning systems.

But where Nickles has hoped to make the most lasting impact is by bringing the city out from under ongoing court oversight, which now constrains the city's handling of mental health patients, the developmentally disabled, juvenile justice, child welfare and special education. Those cases, some of which Nickles himself pressed, are the legacy of mismanagement dating back to Barry's regime, and ending them, he said, will be proof of improved city governance.

A federal judge has recognized continued improvements in the special education cases, raising the real possibility that the city could soon escape oversight. But in the other cases, such as the developmental disabilities case dating to 1976, progress has not yet been lasting enough to satisfy judges. U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle recently approved the appointment of an "independent compliance administrator" - a step backward that Nickles had hoped to avoid.

With Fenty behind in polls, Nickles has continued filing motions in the class actions, pressing novel legal strategies to extract the city from oversight. "I thought I could improve the lot of the folks I'd been representing for years," he said.

If Gray wins on Tuesday, Nickles may be back to making those improvements from private practice. "I'll stick around a while if the mayor wins," he said. "If not, next time you call me, I may have my name on a lawsuit."

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