The District needs an independent attorney general responsible to the people and not answerable to the mayor. I have been privy to previous administrations’ discussions when they tried to recruit and vet a person for the position that used to be called the Corporation Counsel. We have since changed the name of that position to Attorney General but now is the time to make that an elected position.
It is time to make that office independent. Currently, even with the name change, the person occupying that office is still part of the mayor’s cabinet and answers directly to the mayor. It would be a first step to giving that office the right to control criminal trials in D.C. as well.
This is not a criticism of the work of Peter Nickles, presently occupying the office. In fact the LGBT community appreciates his strong stand in defending the Board of Elections & Ethics decision to declare a referendum or an initiative inappropriate in the case of marriage equality. But we had little idea of where the AG would come down on this issue and what his personal views on marriage equality were. We assumed that the mayor wouldn’t appoint someone who disagrees with him on such a basic issue but stranger things have happened. That is just one reason why we in the LGBT community should care about this office. There are others. Issues of concern include contracts that the city has with Catholic Charities or other religious organizations that may come into question after marriage equality becomes law.
There are issues surrounding the contracting related to HIV/AIDS that the recent articles in the Washington Post pointed out. There is the apparent waste of scarce AIDS funding that could end up in the courts. In this case the contracts were awarded by one mayoral agency and the attorney general’s office, another mayoral agency, will be investigating them. The mayor’s office will be investigating itself. This could lead to whitewashing the issue because there is no way we can be assured that the final report is totally independent and that the result of the AG’s investigation won’t be slanted in order to make the mayor look good.
I am not suggesting that Nickles would do that. But we have no guarantee that some future AG wouldn’t. There are often cases where the AG’s office has to investigate impropriety in another agency and they have to defend decisions of city agencies in court. The current battle with the courts over putting mayoral agencies into receivership is one example.
Another possible conflict has to do with recent contracts that were entered into by the city without proper consultation with the Council. The AG suggested that this was an illegal action by the mayor’s office but then began to defend the contracts done that way. Again the contracting was done by the mayor’s office and is being reviewed by the mayor’s office itself. If this were done by an independently elected AG, the people would have more confidence in the outcome of the investigation. In this case, the AG is actually negotiating with the Council on behalf of the mayor.
A major benefit of the direct election of an attorney general is that we will have the same ability to question them on their views on the issues as we do our other elected officials. We will be able to judge for ourselves their backgrounds and abilities.
One of the fears I hear from those opposed to electing an independent AG is that they will make decisions based on looking at a future run for mayor. Well that is part of our electoral process and it will be up to the people whether they would succeed. We have so few elected positions in the District that one more would be welcome. Decisions now made by the appointed AG are every bit as political but rather than being independent and representing the people they are made by a person appointed by the mayor who owes his job to him.
Yes, AG’s have become governors and even cabinet members, like Janet Napolitano. Or Andrew Cuomo, who began in the cabinet, now is an AG and wants to run for governor in New York. But then in D.C. we have had elected officials become mayor, for example Marion Barry and Adrian Fenty, so what is the difference? The scenario of moving to higher office from the AG’s position isn’t really a problem.
The bigger problem for the people of D.C. is to ensure that we have another independent voice representing our interests. An independent AG elected by the people whose views on the issues of the day are known could be that person.
Peter Rosenstein is a D.C.-based LGBT rights and Democratic Party activist.