D.C. Council committee approves ethics panel nominees

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A D.C. Council committee Tuesday approved a trio of nominees to serve on the city’s newly created Board of Ethics, despite lingering concerns about the number of times its chairman-to-be must recuse himself from cases.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray nominated former D.C. Attorney General Robert Spagnoletti to serve as chairman alongside members Laura Richards, a Republican from Ward 7, and Deborah Lathen, a Chicago native who lives in Ward 4.

The board was created as part of legislative reforms intended to restore faith in city hall after a year of scandals and ongoing criminal probes by the U.S. attorney’s office. It is tasked with investigating potential ethics violations among D.C. employees and issuing rules and regulations to guide conduct among elected leaders and public officials.

Committee Chairman Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, and members Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, and David A. Catania, at-large independent, voted in favor of the nominations. Committee member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, voted “present.”

The full council is scheduled to decide whether to confirm the nominees during its July 10 legislative session.

Critics had raised questions about Mr. Spagnoletti’s ability to serve, citing his representation of Mr. Gray during a legal dispute in 2010 over a fence at the mayor’s home that violated city ordinance. They also pointed to Mr. Spagnoletti’s biography on a website for the Schertler & Onorato law firm, where he is a partner, that suggested he regularly worked with clients who had ties to the D.C. government.

“We have concerns about Mr. Spagnoletti’s potential conflicts of interest,” Ms. Bowser said Tuesday. “But these concerns in the committee’s review are overcome by his stellar professional reputation and the plan he brings to the table and experience in District government.”

Mr. Catania said Mr. Spagnoletti is of “incredible talent and intellect,” but he wondered if his nomination sends the right signal as the city government tries to restore confidence in its institutions.

“The perception of having the mayor’s personal lawyer be the chairman of this ethics commission could cause some people to doubt whether in fact this is an independent commission,” Mr. Catania said.

Mr. Catania said he would continue to study the matter, although he voted in favor of all the nominees.

Mr. Spagnoletti, who served as the city’s attorney general from 2003 to 2006, told Ms. Bowser’s committee last month he would not have to sit out many cases. He outlined a three-pronged system for recusing himself to avoid conflicts of interest and would stay away from cases related to Mr. Gray in “the short term.”

He felt his total recusals, if any, would not exceed “the single digits.”

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