The Washington Post

Irvin Nathan to D.C. Council: I am not Peter Nickles

Irvin B. Nathan, nominated to be the District’s attorney general by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), faced the D.C. Council — or at least Judiciary Committee chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) — for a confirmation hearing this morning.

He touted an impressive resume, a job endorsement from the former Speaker of the House, 36 years of District residency — and the fact that his name is not Peter J. Nickles.

The shadow of the controversial former attorney general hangs over Nathan, and he took pains in his opening statement, which did not mention Nickles by name, to make clear that he would not be the close personal adviser to the mayor in the way that Nickles was to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

From his statement:

I have focused on the independence of the Office of the Attorney General. I have repeatedly endorsed — as has the Mayor — the bedrock principle that the OAG must be independent of the Mayor and the Council and must have as its principal client the District of Columbia and the public interest. The OAG must be — and must be perceived as being independent and non-political. I have taken several steps to reaffirm and make concrete this office’s commitment to an independent, non-political OAG. Upon taking office, I returned the principal office of the Attorney General of the District of Columbia from the Wilson Building to the Judiciary Square office where most of the lawyers in the OAG perform their daily work. Most recently, I declined the Mayor’s invitation to have the OAG investigate the Sulaimon Brown allegations, because I believed our efforts would be duplicative of other investigations, our office lacked compulsory process and because of potential concerns that our office could be perceived to have a conflict since the Acting Attorney General serves at the pleasure of the Mayor. To his great credit, the Mayor, for whom I have the highest regard, recognized the situation and agreed with my assessment.

Nathan also distanced himself from the sometimes adversarial approach that Nickles took with his own workforce. Somewhat famously, Nickles drew early grumbles from OAG staff lawyers by requiring them to wear business attire to work every day, regardless of whether they needed to meet with clients or appear in court — a policy imported from Nickles’ previous employer, white-shoe firm Covington & Burling. (Covington’s salaries, of course, were not imported.)

Said Nathan: “I have pledged to keep an open mind on OAG policies, practices and substantive legal positions, and I am willing to revisit any issue that would benefit our government and the OAG. ... I have agreed to and implemented the unions’ suggestions for proposed changes to GAG’s dress policy, allowing them to work comfortably while still appearing professional for court proceedings and client meetings. I am also working with the union to establish a more flexible arrangement for hours and commuting.”

Most tantalizingly, Nathan announced that he was “making progress towards a resolution of several pending major institutional class actions which have resulted in consent decrees against the District.” Ending those cases, affecting the operations of the Child and Family Services Agency, the Department on Disability Services, the Department of Mental Health, the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and the D.C. Public Schools, was a top priority for Nickles, which he pursued by aggressively attacking the legal basis for ongoing court oversight.

In his statement and under questioning by Mendelson, however, Nathan said he was pursuing a more collaborative approach to ending the consent decrees, having “met with plaintiffs’ counsel in each of those cases to discuss ways to bring these litigations to a conclusion.” In other words: He expects to show that the city is in substantial compliance with the court-enforced agreements.

Nathan said he expected that the District could be out of the agreements within two years — to which Mendelson expressed more than a little well-justified skepticism.

If there was any fireworks, it was when Kristopher Baumann, the outspoken leader of the District’s police union and a frequent critic of Nickles, took aim at Nathan for not moving more swiftly to reform the attorney general’s office — in particular, leaving in place managers that he claimed were responsible for missteps in the long-running Pershing Park case and in the more recent Breathalyzer controversy.

Nathan pushed back at Baumann’s claims under questioning from Mendelson — particularly the notion that his office has “overlitigated” legal issues pertaining to the police union, such as labor disputes and records requests.

In essence, said Nathan: It’s Baumann who is overlitigating, not me.

Baumann said this afternoon that it has been “business as usual in the Office of the Attorney General” under Nathan and took him to task for his “overlitigation” attacks.

”That sounds a lot like Peter Nickles,” he said.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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