City’s attorney general takes a stand

Thomas suit shows Nathan’s legal grit

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In the course of five days last week, the District’s mayor was called a “crook” at a public hearing, the council chairman’s campaign committee was accused of widespread reporting violations, one council member disclosed he had been offered bribes, and another council member was accused of using his charity as a slush fund.

The round of dispiriting disclosures has left residents and observers fearful that the city, which Congress stripped of its financial authority just over a decade ago, could be backsliding into an era when inefficiency and accusations of abuse were commonplace.

But decisive action by the city’s attorney general suggests that allegations of public-trust violations - even by elected officials - might be handled differently than in recent years. Though complaints of wrongdoing against elected city officials have been rampant, indictments have been rare.

Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan took a significant step to perhaps change that pattern June 6 by filing a $1 million civil lawsuit against council member Harry Thomas Jr. and referring his case to the U.S. attorney’s office for prosecution.

The lawsuit, which accuses the Ward 5 Democrat of siphoning funds earmarked for youth baseball programs to pay for personal travel and a luxury sport utility vehicle, seeks “every penny” of any misspent funds.

And it’s the first meaningful sign of the attorney general’s independence and authority.

Upon taking office, Mr. Nathan moved his agency’s headquarters from the epicenter of city politics, at the John A. Wilson Building, to Judiciary Square, “where most of the lawyers in the OAG perform their daily work.”

Mr. Nathan’s predecessor, Peter J. Nickles, had been criticized for being too politically connected to incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

“The OAG must be - and must be perceived as being - independent and nonpolitical,” Mr. Nathan said during his March 23 confirmation hearing.

Early in his tenure, Mr. Nathan got mixed reviews by declining to investigate allegations by Sulaimon Brown - a 2010 mayoral candidate who testified last week before the D.C. Council that he was paid and promised a job by Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s campaign to politically attack Mr. Fenty.

Mr. Nathan said the OAG’s efforts would be duplicative and perceived as in conflict with his position as acting attorney general, an appointment by the mayor.

But it left some wondering whether Mr. Nathan was dodging a politically sensitive investigation.

Council member Mary M. Cheh, a George Washington University law professor and head of the council’s Committee on Government Operations, said that to her experience politics doesn’t come into play.

“If I’m given a job, then that’s the job,” Ms. Cheh said, “and I’m sure Irv Nathan looks at it the same way.”

Mrs. Cheh held high-profile hearings during the last administration on charges that friends of Mr. Fenty’s facilitated the transfer of a D.C. firetruck to the Dominican Republic.

A supporter of Mr. Gray’s bid for mayor, she has also led hearings this year into accusations about Mr. Brown and into questions about political hiring in the early days of the mayor’s administration.

She said she’s sympathetic to Mr. Nathan’s situation.

“We have to play the role we’re supposed to play,” she said.

Still, the timing has been less than favorable.

Mr. Irvin’s announcement of the lawsuit against Mr. Thomas came the same day as long-awaited testimony before Mrs. Cheh’s council committee from Mr. Brown. The former minor mayoral candidate has accused Mr. Gray, a Democrat, of providing him with cash and a government job to stay in last year’s mayoral race to publicly criticize Mr. Fenty.

Also last week, The Washington Post reported that council member Jim Graham did not disclose a bribe attempt made by his chief of staff, who has since pleaded guilty in connection with a federal corruption investigation. The Ward 1 Democrat says he has been “tested” several times by the FBI.

And on Friday, the city’s office of campaign finance forwarded to the Board of Elections a complaint accusing D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown’s 2008-re-election campaign of violations in reporting money raised and spent.

Council member Yvette M. Alexander is also the subject of an ongoing campaign-finance investigation into her use of money from her constituent services fund.

All maintain their innocence.

Mr. Nathan’s role in investigating Mr. Thomas has been further complicated by the fact that Mr. Gray and Mr. Thomas are considered political allies, and the investigation into Mr. Thomas was initiated by Mr. Nickles and disparaged by Mr. Thomas and the mayor as politically motivated.

But unlike the long-standing relationship between Mr. Nickles and Mr. Fenty, Mr. Nathan only met Mr. Gray two weeks before he was tapped to be attorney general.

A former Justice Department attorney and senior partner who ran the white-collar-crime department at Arnold & Porter from 1994 to 2007, Mr. Nathan served as general counsel to the U.S. House.

Ariel B. Waldman, senior counsel to Mr. Nathan, said the attorney general has been given a “strong mandate of independence by the mayor.”

“It is to the mayor’s great credit that he has directed us to follow the facts where they may lead, and at no time has interfered with the work of this office in connection with the Team Thomas [funds] investigation,” he said.

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