Under a proposed change to the city's nuisance abatement laws, the office of the D.C. attorney general would have a bigger and better-funded role in going after properties that are havens for drug dealing.
Most drug-related nuisance actions have been handled by the U.S. attorney's office, but D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) has criticized those efforts, saying too little has been done to clean up troublesome properties.
"The law," Graham said this week, "is not being used, and I want to make sure it's being used, because it's a major weapon in our arsenal."
When a pattern of illegal drug activity can be documented at a property, the nuisance abatement law allows prosecutors to sue if the owner fails to correct the problems. Faced with the prospect of costly litigation, most owners take steps to comply before prosecutors take the case to court. Citizens in a number of neighborhoods see the measure as a powerful instrument for improving quality of life.
But who should be responsible for initiating such actions, local or federal authorities?
Unlike the D.C. attorney general, who is appointed by the mayor as the city's chief legal officer, the U.S. attorney is appointed by the president and serves in a unique capacity in the District as the principal enforcer of both local and federal law.
Frustrated by what he said was the U.S. attorney's office's lackluster record in moving against the owners of nuisance properties, Graham floated the idea of stripping the federal prosecutors of their power to act against property owners.
For District council members, who have no say in the U.S. attorney's selection and no official oversight of the office's work, the statutes they enact are one of the few avenues they have to influence the chief prosecutor's priorities.
In this case, Graham said, the idea was simply intended as a wake-up call to U.S. Attorney Kenneth L. Wainstein and his staff. "That was a shot across the bow," he said. And, by Graham's measure, the prosecutors got the message. Since the start of the year, when he first began raising concerns, he said, the U.S. attorney has resolved problems at 17 properties, more than in either 2003 or 2004. Another 24 properties are the subjects of ongoing actions, according to the U.S. attorney's office.
At a hearing last week of Graham's Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the council member announced that he was no longer seeking to limit the role of the U.S. attorney's office in nuisance complaints. After months of talks with the U.S. attorney and the D.C. attorney general, Graham said they had reached an agreement on a plan to give the attorney general's staff a stronger hand in turning around properties that become dangerous blights on the communities.
Under Graham's proposal, the staff of Attorney General Robert J. Spagnoletti would acquire the power to subpoena records in connection with nuisance abatement actions -- an essential tool in such cases, Spagnoletti said this week. "The cases are very information-intensive," he said. "Without subpoena power, it makes it very difficult."
The proposal envisions a dedicated fund, built from fines, to pay for enforcement actions. That is critically important, Graham and Spagnoletti said. Despite its broad array of responsibilities, from defending city agencies against lawsuits to prosecuting juvenile offenders and neglectful parents, the attorney general's office has long been understaffed.
"If they have the resources, they can do the job," Graham said.
Spagnoletti, a federal prosecutor for 13 years, said that both his office -- known for many years as the corporation counsel -- and the U.S. attorney should have integral roles in nuisance abatement. Some actions will be based on chronic complaints of criminal activity, which the U.S. attorney's office will be better suited to document. Other actions will be based more strongly on building or health code violations, which the attorney general's office would be better positioned to track.
"This is clearly a partnership," Spagnoletti said. "It doesn't make sense for either one of us to have all of the authority to the exclusion of the other."
Wainstein, the U.S. attorney, said additional powers and money for the attorney general can only help the overall effort. "We would welcome any additional tools or resources that the Office of the Attorney General could devote to that effort," he said in a statement.