D.C. Council member Harold Brazil has used members of his city staff to do work for his private law practice, requesting them to appear on his behalf at scheduling hearings and a lawsuit mediation, according to interviews, court documents and District records.
Brazil (D-At Large), who runs his own personal-injury law firm, has used two lawyers on his council staff three times in the last several years to fill in for him in court and prepare documents for his cases.
The two council lawyers, James Abely and Aimee Occhetti, said in interviews that they used leave or vacation time whenever they did outside legal work for Brazil. Abely said he was not paid for the outside work, and Occhetti said she might have been compensated but was not certain.
Dora Rodrigues, a paid intern who worked in Brazil's council office for seven weeks in the summer of 1999, also spent part of that time working at the council member's former law firm.
The D.C. Code states that no public official shall use his or her official position or office "to obtain financial gain." The District's personnel manual also prohibits managers from "ordering, directing or requesting subordinate officers or employees to perform during regular working hours any personal services not related to official D.C. government functions and activities."
Brazil, who has served on the council since 1991, is seeking reelection this year as an at-large representative. He is chairman of the council's Committee on Economic Development. Council members, with the exception of Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), work part time and are paid $92,520.
Brazil declined several requests for an interview. In a three-sentence statement read by Shana Heilbron, spokeswoman for his council office, Brazil said: "Members of the council staff have always used public time for matters relating to the city council and the public good. Like many jobs, council staff earn vacation and leave time. Staff members use their vacation days as anyone else would."
Cropp said in an interview that any arrangement in which Brazil might have benefited from the work of council staffers would be "very disturbing."
"If that is what is happening, it is my opinion that it is an inappropriate use of government staff," Cropp said.
Cropp said she planned to look into the matter and "make sure that people here are aware of and comply with the rules and laws of the District of Columbia."
Neither Heilbron nor Brazil's campaign manager, Darden Copeland, would describe the extent to which Brazil asked members of his government staff to help him in his private business or why he needed city employees to assist him with his outside work.
Unlike protected civil servants in the District government, individuals who work for any of the 13 D.C. Council members serve at the pleasure of those officials, meaning they can be fired or lose their jobs should a member be defeated in an election or choose not to run for another term.
Abely, legislative counsel on the Economic Development Committee, said in a brief interview that Brazil has asked him four times to fill in for him in court. Abely said he did so twice, declining to explain why he did not on the two other occasions.
Abely's most recent appearance for Brazil was Nov. 19 in D.C. Superior Court, where he attended a mandatory mediation aimed at resolving a lawsuit without going to trial, according to interviews and court documents.
The client, Latessar Elliott, 28, was seeking more than $250,000 in relief as a result of an automobile accident in 2002 . Elliott said she suffered neck, back and leg injuries and subsequently lost wages.
The mediation that day ended without a resolution, and the case is scheduled to go to trial next month. Elliott said in an interview that Brazil did not tell her he was sending a D.C. Council lawyer in his place.
"He [Abely] was sent by Brazil because Brazil was out of town. That makes me feel upset, because it seems like the case doesn't matter to Brazil," Elliott said. Had she known Abely did not work for the law firm, Elliott said, "I would have objected to him sitting in and would have waited for Brazil to come back."
Abely and Occhetti are members of the D.C. Bar.
More than a year before the Elliott case, Abely stood in for Brazil at a scheduling hearing in D.C. Superior Court. The judge instructed Abely in open court to convey to Brazil that he should be present at the next hearing.
Most recently, Brazil phoned Abely late one night several weeks ago to ask him to attend a court hearing the following morning, citing a scheduling conflict with a television interview, according to two people who have been given details about the conversation. They said Abely declined.
Occhetti, a lawyer who worked in Brazil's council office from September 1999 to March 2001, said she believed she stood in for the council member during a scheduling conference on one of his private court cases.
"He [Brazil] probably had another thing to do at the time," said Occhetti, who is now a special assistant in the District's Office of Property Management.
She said that there were other instances in which she might have helped Brazil with his law practice but that she always took leave when doing so. "I may have done a couple of things, but never on government time," Occhetti said.
"I may have researched a couple of things. . . . I think I typed a couple things for him at his law office," she said. Occhetti said she believed that she was paid for her legal work, but if so, "it would not have been a lot of money."
In an interview last week, Occhetti said she would check her records to verify whether she was paid by Brazil or his former law firm. Occhetti did not return several follow-up calls.
Rodrigues, the intern who worked in Brazil's council office in 1999, was paid $2,156 from June 7 to July 30 of that year, according to council records. About a year earlier, Rodrigues, now 33, and two members of her family contributed at least $6,000 to Brazil's failed campaign for mayor, city records show.
Sometime in the early summer, Rodrigues, in law school at the time, started doing work at Koonz, McKenney, Johnson, DePaolis & Lightfoot, primarily for Brazil, without getting paid.
Joseph H. Koonz, the firm's senior and founding partner, initially said Rodrigues "was volunteering here in July 1999 for a couple hours a day." But yesterday, William Lightfoot, the firm's managing partner and a former council member, said the firm paid her for her work during this period.
"She did come up here and volunteer during the summer of 1999," Lightfoot said. However, at his recommendation, the firm paid Rodrigues $1,312 for her work from July 7 to Aug. 7.
Not paying a volunteer in a business could be a violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
Bob Zachariasiewicz, a spokesman for the U.S. Labor Department, would not comment specifically on the Rodrigues arrangement. But he said, "Typically, volunteering for a for-profit company does not waive the otherwise applied Fair Labor Standards Act."
Asked about the period during which Rodrigues was not paid by the firm, Lightfoot responded, "She volunteered."
Rodrigues declined to comment, except to shed some light on why Brazil brought her over to the firm.
"He [Brazil] knew I was in law school and that I was interested in how a law firm worked. And I think it was an offer to help me get my foot in the door," she said. "Harold at the time was really acting as my mentor."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.