D.C. Corporation Counsel John R. Risher Jr. formally asked the D.C. Superior Court yesterday to remove Sterling Tucker as City Council chairman on grounds that Tucker violated restrictions on outside employment by teaching at Howard University.
Acting under a little-known section of the D.C. Code covering violations of the public trust, Risher argued in the petition he filed in court that Tucker has disqualified himself from the city's second highest elective office by working for the past two years as an adjunt professor at Howard for $7,500 a year.
Risher cited a provision of the city's home rule charter that requires the Council chairman to work full-time for the city and prohibits him from holding any other salaried job. The Council chairman's $35,000 salar is $10,000 more than the pay for each of the Council's other 12 members, who are allowed to have outside employment.
Tucker has said that he discussed his lecturing at Howard with the chairmen of the House and Senate District Committees when Congress was writing the home rule charter and that they saw nothing wrong with it because he would still be working full-time for the city. At Tucker's request, the two committee chairman issued a statement May 26 repeating this opinion.
Tucker, who had routinely reported his income from Howard in public financial disclosure statements, said yesterday that Risher's action was "an arrogant and blatantly political attempt to remove me from office."
Tucker and City Council member Marion Barry are likely to become opponents of Risher's boss, Mayor Walter E. Washington, if the mayor decides to run for re-election next year. Tucker is considered the greater threat to the mayor's traditional constituency of older, politically moderate and more affluent voters.
Once one of the mayor's close political allies, Tucker has more recently sided with much of the rest of the City Council in periodic clashes betweent he executive and legislative branches of the city government.
Yesterday, several other members of the Council joined Tucker in attacking Risher's action as politically motivated. They also questioned Mayor Washington's role in the controversy.
"It's obviously a cheap political shot and I call on the mayor to disassociate himself from this action," said Council member Polly Shackleton (D-three). Referring to former U.S. Attorney General John N. Mitchell, who had been accused of using his office to harass political opponents of former President Nixon, Shackleton added that "I can only describe Mr. Risher as the John Mitchell of the Walter Washington administration."
Council member Willie J. Hardy (D-seven) accused Risher of having "his own private agenda" by moving quickly against Tucker while delaying action for up to his office by the Council.
Marion Barry (D-at large), the other potential mayoral candidate in 1978, said he "deplored the use of executive power for political ends."
Even though Risher's investigation began three weeks ago, Tucker said in his statement yesterday that he was never consulted or interviewed by Risher or Risher's staff until the petition for his removal was about to be filed.
"By denying me that courtesy, and by not informing me of his legal action until after the fact, Mr. Risher has shown a shocking and callous disregard for the office of the Council chairman," Tucker said. He added that Risher's actions "are politically motivated int he most patently offensive sense of the phrase."
Risher and Mayor Washington did not publicly respond yesterday, leaving unanswered many questions raised by the removal petitions.
The mayor's office alerted the news media that the petition had been filed and provided copies of it. Risher, however, refused to be interviewed, contending through a spokesman that the case was before the court.
Mayor Washington, who also declined to comment himself, asserted through a spokesman that he was not told in advance by Risher that the petition would be filed.
One person close to the mayor, who asked not to be named, said Risher had been told by at least one confidant of the mayor that the move was "ridiculous and outrageous" and could boomerang, further damaging the mayor's already shaky political position in the city. "There's no kind of glaze that could be put on this," the source said, "that would make it look as if the mayor is not responsible."
Some city political observers found it difficult to belief that the mayor would not have been told in advance that Risher, his chief legal officer and personal political adviser, was to take such an explosive legal and political action. But some likened it to other instances where the city's chief executive has contended no prior knowledge of major developments affecting the city.
Earlier this year, for example, the mayor insisted he did not know that the Ford administration planned to recommend $10 million reduction in the federal payment to the city. City Budget Director Comer S. Coppie knew about the planned reduction two months in advance, but he said he had not informed the mayor.
Still, the mayor's press secretary, Sam Eastman, maintained yesterday, "Risher initiated the action and took it without a consultation with the mayor. The mayor didn't know it was filed until afterwards."
Risher's investigation and court action against Tucker comes at a time when Washington Tucker and Barry have begun early jostling for the inside track in the race for the 1978 mayoral nomination of the Democratic Party, which represents three of every four voters in the city.None of the three has formally announced their candidacy, but all have been sizing up their possible bases of financial and political support.
Of those three, Mayor Washington is seen by some observers as being in the most vulnerable position. He has been persistently criticized for passing an uneventful two years in office and failing to provide leadership in key issues such as economic development.
In addition, the mayor suffered what many believe was one of his severest political setbacks a few months ago, during a continuing crisis over the administration of the troubled Department of Human Resources by Joseph P. Yeldell, Washington's long-time political ally.
Tucker supporters branded Risher's action as an attempt to embarrass Tucker through a series of damaging newspaper during the many months of the Yeldell crisis. Even though Tucker may not be ousted from office, some say, continuing controversy and a possible jury trial to avoid removal could force him to resign.
The Tucker supporters ruled out personal involvement in the effort by the mayor or Barry. But they believe zealous supporters of either or both men could have engineered what they believe is a well-planned assault on Tucker. Barry has denied that he or his supporters were involved. Even persons close to the mayor have acknowledged privately that TUcker's demise could benefit the mayor politically.
Risher's investigation included suggestions at one point that a broad investigation of Tucker's finances was being undertaken. Washington press secretary Eastman called The Washington Post last week to request copies of previous newspaper articles concerning a $25,000 trust fund administered by Tucker on behalf of his children, Eastman said yesterday he was acting for Risher's office.
The U.S. Attorney's Office here had investigated Tucker's involvement with the trust fund from the New York-based Taconic Foundation and concluded last summer that there was no wrongdoing on the part of Tucker, who never had direct access to the fund and dissolved it last October.
Still, as part of his investigation, Risher requested and obtained from the fraud division of U.S. Attorney's Office its file on the Tucker trust fund. Risher reportedly indicated an urgency for the material. The Post has learned, and sent a government messenger the 10 blocks between the District Building and the courthouse to pick up the file.
At about the same time, an effort was made last week to get the D.C. Democratic State Committee to adopt a resolution calling for investigations of Tucker by the U.S. Attorney's Office, Risher's office and the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. That effort failed last week, following a hot debate by the committee.
The election to choose committee members last year was a bitter fight between the Open Party faction, led by the mayor, and the Unity Party faction, led by Tucker, Barry and others. The mayor suffered a stunning defeat when his slate captured only three of the 44 seats up for election.
The controversy over Tucker's work for Howard began last month, when newpapers picked up Tucker's routine D.C. Election and Ethics Board disclosures that he had earned $7,084 form Howard in 1976 and $8,654 in 1975. Tucker also reported more than $2,000 each year in honoraria from other sources but attention was quickly focused on the Howard income because it came from a titled position he held at the school.
Section 403(c) of the Home Rule Charter says: "The (Council) chairman shall receive, in addition to the compensation to which he is entitled as a member of the Council, $10,000 per annum, payable in equal installments, for each year he serves as Chairman, but the Chairman shall not engage in any employment (whether as an employee or as a self-employed individual, for which he is compensated in an amount in excess of his actual expenses in connection therewith."
TUcker said he accepted the Howard lecturing position "only after seeking and receiving assurances from the leadership of the appropriate congressional committees, before I bagan the assignment, that I would not be in violation of the Home Rule Act."
Tucker considered his explanation to be upheld on May 26, when a joint statement was issued by Rep. Charles C. Diggs (D-Mo.), chairman of the Senate Government Affairs Subcommittee on the District.
The congressman said it was their "firm recollection, concurred by other members and staff," that consideration was given to which offices should be full-time and which should not. Council Chairman would be full-time, they said, but that determination "was not intended to preclude income by writing, lecturing or making speeches."
While not fully endorsing Tucker's action, the two chairman implied endorsement by saying the language of the law might be unclear. "We have from time to time discovered ambiquities or misleading language in the legislation, have corrected some and will continue to do so where necessary," they said.