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It was before 6 a.m. on Robert Spagnoletti’s second day of work for the D.C. government when he found himself locked out of his Pennsylvania Avenue office. Spagnoletti, who recently became the city’s top legal officer when he was confirmed as D.C. corporation counsel, asked the security guard at the Wilson Building for help. The guard, according to Spagnoletti, said he didn’t know what the Office of Corporation Counsel was and suggested it might be in a different building. Spagnoletti says several security supervisors were consulted, but even they didn’t know of the office — despite Spagnoletti’s insistence that the agency took up more than a third of the building’s fourth floor. Security eventually let Spagnoletti into his office. But the 40-year-old ex-federal prosecutor took a lesson from the incident. “If people who work in the building don’t know [what] the Corporation Counsel is, then how can you expect residents of the city to know?” he asks. Yet the office is involved in some of the most important and volatile issues confronting the District — from enforcing child support payments and pursuing child abuse and neglect cases, to prosecuting crimes committed by juveniles, to defending the city from civil suits and filing suit when the city government has been defrauded. Spagnoletti was picked by D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams to head the 200-lawyer, $50 million legal shop that has been underfunded, undertrained, and overmanaged for several years. He replaces Robert Rigsby, who left the office last fall to become a D.C. Superior Court judge. Spagnoletti, who lives with his longtime partner and adopted 9-year-old son in Northwest Washington, is the first openly gay corporation counsel and one of the highest-ranking openly gay members of the Williams administration. He joins the mayor’s office at a time when the city is once again in the spotlight for questionable behavior by public officials and facing a rising tide of violent street crime, much of it attributed to juveniles, whose cases are prosecuted by the Office of Corporation Counsel. Meanwhile, the D.C. Council and the mayor have been locked in a battle over a series of issues: investigations into alleged fraud within the D.C. Office of Property Management; whether Inspector General Charles Maddox still has a job; and the fate of the often-abused D.C. government employee credit card program. Spagnoletti’s appointment to a job that had been vacant for nearly a year gave some members of the council the opportunity to turn their frustrations with the mayor toward Spagnoletti. At Spagnoletti’s confirmation hearing, some council members said they were upset that, in the past, the Corporation Counsel office has acted more like the caretaker of Williams’ troubles than the enforcer of laws. They wanted promises from Spagnoletti. He offered just one. “I will always enforce the law,” Spagnoletti said at his June 25 hearing. “I am sitting here now because I made a reputation of being fair and having integrity in my dealings with the legal community in how I conducted myself as a lawyer and a prosecutor, and I will sacrifice that for no one, including the mayor.” On July 22, one week after being confirmed by the D.C. Council, Spagnoletti surprised a number of people when he sought to recover $929,000 from D.C. developer Douglas Jemal for allegedly submitting false invoices to the city. Last week, the office filed a civil suit in D.C. Superior Court against Jemal, his company, and a former D.C. official alleging fraud and seeking the $929,000 plus another $1.8 million in damages and fines. “Very little had happened in terms of there being initiated investigations by the administration itself,” says Ward 1 Democrat Councilman Jim Graham, referring to allegations involving Jemal. “There are a raft of civil issues that never got any attention whatsoever until Spagnoletti had gotten involved.” Graham, however, still remains skeptical of Spagnoletti’s motivations — noting that Spagnoletti has publicly expressed his ambition to become a judge. “I’m wary of someone who takes any job when all he has in mind is another job,” Graham says. A HANDS-ON MANAGER Spagnoletti grew up in Colonia, N.J., as one of six children in a Roman Catholic family. In 1984, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and history from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. He earned his law degree at Georgetown University Law Center in 1987. For the next three years, Spagnoletti tried his hand at private practice, first as an associate handling white collar criminal defense and commercial law in the New York office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and later as a civil litigator in Houston’s Mayor Day & Caldwell. Spagnoletti joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. in 1990, where he remained until being named corporation counsel. Those who worked with Spagnoletti — known as “Spag” by his fellow prosecutors — say he is extremely hard-working and creative. As a manager, former prosecutors say, he was very hands-on and put in place checks to ensure that cases were not declined without being properly reviewed. An avid runner, Spagnoletti says he wakes up around 4 a.m. and is usually at work by 5:30 a.m. As evidenced by his comments to the D.C. Council, Spagnoletti puts a lot of weight on his reputation. He is credited with creating the domestic violence section within the U.S. Attorney’s Office — an achievement he cites when asked why he believes he can turn around the Corporation Counsel office. “I have experience with getting people organized and involved in difficult circumstances,” says Spagnoletti. Prosecutors traditionally shy away from domestic violence cases. They are difficult to prosecute, in part, because many times victims refuse to cooperate. Before 1996, those matters were handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office general sections, and abuse charges were “no-papered” — meaning dismissed — more than 60 percent of the time. Spagnoletti, who says such matters were considered “icky” by many prosecutors, says he worked very hard within the office to start a specialized section that would embrace such matters. The section began with just Spagnoletti. When he left in June, the unit — which now includes sex crimes — had more than 30 lawyers and 30 support staff. “He took an area of criminal law that a lot of people either did not take seriously or regarded as kind of a nuisance to deal with, and I think he was very instrumental in changing the attitude toward that offense both in the office and in the court system,” says Preston Burton, who worked as a prosecutor when the domestic violence section was created. “He accomplished that in part by making prosecutors handling those cases more accountable.” The Corporation Counsel’s problems are much larger and run deeper. • Lawyers and support staff are paid 15 percent to 20 percent below their federal counterparts, and there have been few merit or cost-of-living raises handed out in the past two years. • There are currently 109 vacancies in the office, though Spagnoletti doesn’t have the budget to fill all those slots. • The office has a reputation for shoddy work, and federal judges have lambasted its lawyers for missing court-imposed deadlines or not showing up for hearings. • The office has appeared at times to be ostracized by the Williams administration or used as a political graveyard for high-ranking Williams officials on the way out. Adding to this perception is the fact that Williams has cut out budget increases that had been approved by the D.C. Council. At a budget hearing this past spring, then-acting Corporation Counsel Arabella Teal said the office’s budget had been cut by $3 million over the past two years, while caseloads have increased. • According to the D.C. Legal Aid Society, the child support enforcement section of the office fails to establish child support in 72 percent of their cases and fails to collect 86 percent of the time — the worst record of any jurisdiction in the country. In addition, the office is still looking for a child support director. • There is a management structure in place in some areas that puts five supervisors between line attorneys and the corporation counsel, making it more likely for important matters to fall between the cracks. • And then there are some rather bizarre policies in place, such as the fact that, until Spagnoletti arrived, lawyers were not allowed to use handheld computers such as Palm Pilots. Corporation Counsel spokesman Peter Lavallee says there was a concern that such computers would not be compatible or could contain viruses. Also, claims investigators were working in cramped cubicles at Judiciary Square when there was vacant office space available. Spagnoletti says removing such policies “will hopefully make people feel like professionals — like lawyers.” Since his arrival, Spagnoletti says, he has met with every section of the office in groups — both with and without managers present — to let employees know that he is open to ideas and interested in hearing their concerns. He says he also wants to know what should remain untouched. “There are so many basic things that can be done without spending a lot of money,” says Spagnoletti. “The trick is not to get so bogged down in the minutiae — to move on and keep moving forward.” He says he plans to use technology whenever and wherever he can to make the work of his assistants easier and more efficient. Spagnoletti, however, acknowledges that the office lacks numerous resources available to private law firms and the federal government, given the amount of work his office takes on. In particular, Spagnoletti says that his office — which covers most of the litigation costs of any D.C. agency being sued — needs to have more litigation support, whether it be the ability to use experts or hire additional staff. He also says city agencies should absorb more of the litigation costs when they are sued. For example, Spagnoletti says a lack of resources is hampering his office’s efforts to defend the District adequately in a class action filed against the Metropolitan Police Department by hundreds of people who were arrested during World Bank demonstrations last year. Says Spagnoletti: “How do you pay for the deposition of 600 people?” Spagnoletti says he will likely hire three or four new managers — one or two of those from the U.S. Attorney’s Office — but that he plans to keep supervisors to a minimum. He would like no more than two layers of management between himself and his line attorneys. “Managers should solely exist to support the line folks,” Spagnoletti says. As for his own access to Williams, Spagnoletti says that thus far he has been able to talk directly to the mayor when requested — though he acknowledges that there are normally two managers between him and Williams. Spagnoletti is quickly finding the job requires skills to deal with the large number of high-profile matters that come through the door daily. In response to an increase in crime committed by juveniles and the death of a D.C. government employee allegedly killed by a 13-year-old playing “cops and robbers” with a stolen car, the office prepared a list of potential legislative changes that he says would give his assistants more investigative and prosecutorial tools. For example, Spagnoletti says his office cannot subpoena witnesses; juveniles cannot face additional charges for leaving a group home or violating a court order; and confidentiality laws prevent police from finding out whether a juvenile they have arrested is obeying a court order to stay away from certain areas. He says his office is also looking into ways that the city can hold parents accountable for their children’s criminal actions. “I’m hoping to become much more pro-active in the way we handle the legal business of the city,” Spagnoletti says.

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