Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the year in which the District’s attorney general will first be elected by city voters. It is 2014, not 2012. This version has been corrected.
The District of Columbia has an abundance of certain things right now: unhappy Redskins fans, tapas restaurants and allegations of malfeasance ensnaring some of its politicians.
A refresher: The D.C. Office of Campaign Finance and Acting Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan are looking into D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) and his financial relationships with organizations he once ran. Some council members are looking at the luxury SUVs leased for their own chairman, Kwame R. Brown (D), and whether the city’s public works department broke any rules. And then, of course, we have Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who finds himself under a cloud after fellow candidate Sulaimon Brown accused Gray of handing him a city job in return for campaign attacks on former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).
Gray has vigorously denied the charges, saying he promised Sulaimon Brown only a job interview, and now the D.C. Council, the Office of Campaign Finance, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are looking into the allegations. Two other authorities — Nathan’s office and Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby — have been asked to look into the matter but have declined.
This much is clear: The District has an alphabet soup of agencies empowered to look at these matters — OAG, OCF, OIG, OGR, USAO, FBI — but it does not have a sheriff.
Not a sheriff as in the elected law enforcement officer found in many American jurisdictions. Rather, the District doesn’t have a sheriff in the best tradition of Wyatt Earp: a guy who not only finds the bad guys and deals them the justice they deserve, but a fellow whose mere presence serves as a hedge against bad behavior, an everyday reminder that public malfeasance will be swiftly exposed and punished.
And for all those who might think that the District’s body politic is better off for not having an ambitious, self-aggrandizing, hot-dogging prosecutorial type, consider this: Where there is no local sheriff, in comes Congress. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif), chairman of a House committee investigating the Brown allegations, is more than happy to fill the role.
Diagnosing the problem is not difficult: The city’s local investigative bodies are conflicted when it comes to probing elected officials. The attorney general is appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council. Same goes for the inspector general, who has the additional fig leaf of a fixed term of office. The Office of Campaign Finance is governed by the Board of Elections and Ethics — also appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council. All have reason to fear political retribution should any mount a vigorous probe of a sitting politician.
A good U.S. attorney can fill that role, and has, but it’s been 25 years since the city had a crusader in that job. Joseph E. diGenova, U.S. attorney from 1983 to 1988, is the last person who can fairly claim to have taken an aggressive public stance against public corruption, having targeted then-Mayor Marion Barry’s administration. “The city has a legacy of incompetence and corruption,” he said this week. “It is deep and it is wide.”
His successors have been generally less interested in pursuing local politicians — though it was an encouraging sign that Machen issued a statement confirming that he was “assessing” Brown’s claims. Still, in a city sensitive to federal interference, there needs to be serious local investigative muscle.
There is some hope. In 2014, the District will elect its attorney general for the first time. Many have argued that’s a step in the wrong direction, that an appointed AG leads to better-quality legal work and better management of city lawyers.
But council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), a leading proponent of electing an attorney general and an oft-mentioned potential candidate for the job, argues that sometimes political ambition can aid in policing the body politic, creating some “constructive tensions” with the other arms of government.
“It’s creating an entirely different center of power in the city,” he said this week. “You will no longer have one enormous center of power, which is the mayor, and one smaller center of power, which is the council.”
DiGenova, a Republican, questions whether the overwhelmingly Democratic District can muster the will to vigorously oversee its politicos. “When you have a one-party political system, this is what you get.”You get no accountability,” he said. “People appear to be very happy with that.”
Catania argues that an independent, publicly accountable AG is the best chance the city has to immediately improve its checkered record of self-government. His message: District, police thyself. Or someone will do it for you.
As diGenova puts it: “All these people who don’t like congressional oversight are going to get plenty of it.”