Former D.C. Attorney General Robert Spagnoletti told a D.C. Council committee on Monday he can be an effective member of the newly created ethics board - despite what his critics may say - and that his ties to city government are unlikely to force his recusal from many cases.
The D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability emerged 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.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray nominated Mr. Spagnoletti to serve as its chairman alongside members Laura Richards, a Republican from Ward 7, and Deborah Lathen, a Chicago native who lives in Ward 4. The nominees must be confirmed by the D.C. Council. The board 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.
Council member Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Government Operations, said nominees might be jumping into "a hot skillet" in light of recent ethical lapses around the John A. Wilson Building. She said she hopes to present the nominations to the full council by July 10, when it holds its final legislative session before summer recess.
But D.C. political observers immediately raised questions about Mr. Spagnoletti's ability to serve, citing his representation of Mr. Gray during a legal dispute over a fence at the mayor's home that violated a city ordinance. Mr. Spagnoletti, 49, of Shepherd Park, told Ms. Bowser's committee that the fence issue occurred in 2010, when Mr. Gray was still council chairman.
"I was not successful, because the fence came down," he said, answering a question about his District-related clients. "If we're using that as a guidepost, I ain't getting any business."He said he would recuse himself from any cases directly involving Mr. Gray "in the short term."
Witnesses before the committee also pointed to Mr. Spagnoletti's biography on a Web page for the Schertler & Onorato law firm, where he is a partner, that says he "regularly advises individuals and businesses on how to navigate a variety of legal issues through the District of Columbia government and negotiates on their behalf with District of Columbia agencies and officials."
Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, testified that Mr. Spagnoletti's potential recusals in light of those connections would leave just two members, leaving the board vulnerable to split opinions on cases.
"The bottom line is I don't think Mr. Spagnoletti gets it," said Dorothy Brizill, who runs the city government watchdog website DCWatch.
In his turn before the dais, Mr. Spagnoletti outlined a three-pronged standard for recusing himself from cases that involve clients employed by the District or those who know him personally or professionally. His total number of his recusals would be "in the single digits," he said, because the conditions for stepping aside would rarely occur.
"It would have to be an intersection of representing the employee and then that employee coming before the board," he said after the hearing.
He also downplayed rumors that he wants to use the position as a springboard to become the District's first elected attorney general in 2014. The ethics board's inaugural members will serve staggered terms of two, four and six years.
"After I thought about it, I asked for the six-year appointment," Mr. Spagnoletti testified. "And I did so because I did not want to get into something that I cared so much about ... if I couldn't invest enough time to make it work."
Former Mayor Anthony A. Williams appointed Mr. Spagnoletti to serve as corporation counsel from 2003 to 2006, a title that changed to attorney general during his tenure.
Supporters of Mr. Spagnoletti testified his critics are using an "overly broad" perspective of his law firm and day-to-day interactions with D.C. employees.
Eugene Adams, who worked alongside Mr. Spagnoletti at the attorney general's office, said the city would benefit "almost immediately" from his service.
"Mayor Gray," he said, "could not have made a better choice."
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Tom Howell Jr. covers politics for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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