When John R. Risher Jr. was named D.C. corporation counsel a year ago, he promised in a newspaper interview to give special attention to recruiting "more good lawyers" for the department, including blacks. At that time there were 18 blacks on the 109-lawyer staff.
A year later, the number of black lawyers in the Office of the Corporation Counsel has slipped to 16. Of the 17 new lawyers Risher has hired since becoming the city's chief prosecutor last March, one is black. Another is a Latin American.
"I don't know what the story is, but it's a bad reflection on the District of Columbia government," said Ruth Hankins Nesbitt, a former president of the predominantly black Washington Bar Association.
Maria Huggins, head of the equal employment opportunity branch of the city's Office of Human Rights, said, "It's not anywhere near what it should be. It's been a problem for years. But he simply hires on the standards he sets."
"I'm not satisfied with the results in the sense that I continually wanted the product figure (percentage of blacks) to be higher," said Risher, who is black, at a press conference yesterday. "I am satisfied that we've done the best that we can do . . . "
The D.C. City Council passed legislation last year urging all city departments to attempt to make the composition of their staffs reflective of the population ratio of the city, which is nearly three-quarters black. But those are only goals, Higgins said, and there is no clear action that can be taken with regard to the corporation counsel's office.
Persons familiar with the legal field view the jobs in the corporation counsel's office as important avenues for blacks to obtain invaluable experience and subsequently gain entry into the city's highly competitive legal profession. "It doesn't pay a fortune, but the position and the contact are important," Nesbitt said.
Risher's office was unable to say yesterday how many of the more than 77 lawyers who were interviewed for staff positions over the past year were black. "To be honest, I have made no effort to keep score on race or sex or anything else," said Gloria Powell, Risher's administrative officer.
Risher cited four reasons yesterday for the low number of black lawyers hired. The city must compete with private firms and the federal government and its pay scale is not comparable, he said. Additionally, some lawyers are discouraged by heavy case loads in the department and the lack of sufficient nonlegal staff.
J. Clay Smith Jr., current vice president of the Washington Bar Association, which represents some 600 lawyers, said he was concerned about the paucity of black lawyers in the corporation counsel's office. "I think John has tried to find lawyers. But I think the office should try to do a better job of recruitment," Smith said.
As of January, the latest date for which complete figures are available, there were 11 black men and five black women among the 101 lawyers in the department. Since that time, no additional black attorneys have been hired.
There have been no complaints of discrimination in hiring or promotion in the corporation counsel's office since Risher took over, according to spokesperson for the office.
Yesterday, Risher announced the hiring of two prominent lawyers for the corporation counsel's staff. Geoffrey M. Alprin, 38, who is assistant director of the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, will become deputy corporation counsel in charge of the criminal division.
James T. McManus, 30, who was an attorney for the Federal Power Commission, will be an assistant corporation counsel. McManus will serve as attorney-adviser to the Public Service Commission, of which Risher is general counsel.
Risher announced the two new appointments along with a major reorganization of the department in which nine previous branches have been consolidated into five.The reorganization is the first in the corporation counsel's office in more than 25 years, Risher said.
The newly formed criminal division, to be headed by Alprin, will include a six-member criminal tax task force, whose duties will include efforts to better enforce the city's use tax law, Risher said. Under that law, goods from stores in other jurisdictions that are received in the District are supposed to be taxed at a rate comparable to the city sales tax. Many non-District firms are believed to be refusing to collect the use tax properly.
Risher disclosed yesterday that he sent a letter to U.S. Attorney Earl J. Silbert last Monday asking that task force members be allowed to conduct criminal proceedings now handled exclusively by Silbert's staff, which generally prosecutes felonies for the District. Risher said the increased power could bolster the effectiveness of the tax task force and help increase revenues to the city.