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For the record, Robert Spagnoletti and John Ashcroft do not have the same job. But ever since May 26, when the D.C. Office of Corporation Counsel changed its name to the Office of Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Spagnoletti has received several calls intended for his federal counterpart. “I was tempted to answer one of them, but I was a little nervous about who may be on the line,” says Spagnoletti, who for the past year has been running the 240-lawyer office. In a city where most crimes are prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the name change was a symbolic and political nod to D.C. residents who two years ago overwhelmingly approved the establishment of an elected prosecutor. Some supporters say it signifies the District’s continued quest for statehood and voting representation in Congress. At the most basic level, Spagnoletti says, the move adds prestige to an office that for years has struggled with a revolving door of leadership, declining budgets, and a lack of respect among their legal brethren. “This was a huge morale booster,” says Spagnoletti, who lobbied D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams for the name change. “The office’s responsibilities really are that of an attorney general’s office and more,” says John Payton, a former corporation counsel and a partner at D.C.’s Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. The attorney general moniker is just one of a series of reforms that Spagnoletti, a 41-year-old former federal prosecutor, has presided over since he was picked for the D.C. job in May 2003. In March, he instituted a management system that reduced the number of supervisors between him and the line attorneys. New computers are currently being installed for every employee in the office. The agency is about to take control of child support disbursements from the D.C. court system. And a longtime union dispute between city lawyers and the D.C. government is near resolution and would give every assistant attorney general a 15 to 25 percent raise. “There’s a new energy here that I think everyone feels,” says Deputy D.C. Attorney General Eugene Adams, who has been with the office for 17 years. Assistant Attorney General Steven Anderson, who is president of the union representing 160 D.C. government lawyers, says quality of life has been improving in the office. He says it is due in large part to the fact the union won its pay raise case before an arbitrator in April. Anderson also credits Spagnoletti — who played no part in the pay raise dispute — with seeking input from staff before deciding which supervisors to keep in place. “Some supervisors who people didn’t like got demoted,” Anderson says. “Bob got rid of a couple people who were real problems.” Spagnoletti, who spent 13 years at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District, is also getting a taste of D.C. politics. Most notably, Spagnoletti, who is openly gay and lives with his longtime partner and 10-year-old adopted son in Northwest Washington, was tasked by the mayor with drafting a legal opinion on whether the city must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Though the opinion was sent to Williams months ago, the mayor has yet to release it publicly. Spagnoletti says it’s up to Williams to decide what to do with it. According to a government official who has reviewed the document, Spagnoletti concluded that the city must recognize same-sex unions — an opinion that some D.C. officials fear will unleash the wrath of conservatives on Capitol Hill. And not everyone is convinced that the office has turned around. “While we are happy with some of the leadership changes that Bob Spagnoletti has brought about, we haven’t really seen that on the ground yet,” says Jonathan Smith, executive director of the D.C. Legal Aid Society, which has been an outspoken critic of the way the office handles the enforcement of child support. “There’s been very little effect at all in terms of what’s happening with cases and line attorneys.” But Spagnoletti has taken steps to address that skepticism. He recently hired one of the office’s loudest critics. Next month, Kristin Henrikson, a supervising attorney at the D.C. Legal Aid Society who focuses on family law, will head up a section in the attorney general’s Child Support Enforcement Division. Last year, Henrikson co-authored an opinion piece in The Washington Post that slammed the office as having “the poorest-performing child support enforcement office in the nation,” with just 14 percent of court-ordered payments being collected. Legal Aid’s Smith says hiring Henrikson was “a very smart thing for them to do” because Spagnoletti is putting her in a position where she can make changes. Henrikson didn’t return a call for comment. UNDERDOG AGENCY With a $50 million budget, the D.C. attorney general handles an array of legal tasks such as defending the city in civil suits, prosecuting juvenile offenders, enforcing child support decisions, and representing the District in child abuse matters, to name a few. But the office has a history of being an underdog agency in the D.C. government. Its lawyers handle some of the District’s most difficult problems with few resources. Yet they are paid much less than their federal counterparts or those in private practice. During the 1990s, the District’s financial crisis hit the office hard, and there were moments when working fax machines and photocopiers — and even paper — were hard to find. When Spagnoletti arrived, morale in the office was extremely low. Resignations were pouring in at about two a week. More than 100 positions were unfilled. There hadn’t been a permanent leader for nearly nine months. And the office and Mayor Williams had minimal contact. Judges as well as community activists were criticizing the performance of some of its attorneys. Some veterans of the office say a lack of stable leadership — there have been a dozen acting and permanent corporation counsel over the past 14 years — has been the primary problem. Others point to a management system put in place by Spagnoletti’s immediate predecessor, Robert Rigsby, who is now a D.C. Superior Court judge. Assistant AG Anderson says Rigsby added layer upon layer of management to the point where line assistants were struggling to keep up with their caseloads. “Our organization was top-heavy,” Anderson says. “We had all these special counsels who did not work. What we really needed was people to do the work — to work the case.” Rigsby, who ran the office from 1999 to 2002, says he is proud of the changes he made, noting that most of those happened five years ago. “Although disagreed upon by some, I am very happy with the people I brought in and the work they did,” Rigsby says. As part of his reorganization, Spagnoletti took a couple months to meet with staff. Ultimately, he placed fewer managers between himself and the line attorneys. A year ago, seven different managers separated Spagnoletti from his juvenile prosecutors. That number has been reduced to two. He also cut back the number of titles in the office from 16 to five. New divisions, such as Neighborhood and Victims Services, were created, and some managers were stripped of their authority. While few people were fired, Spagnoletti says the changes weren’t easy. “The displaced managers had to go somewhere,” Spagnoletti says. “To some managers we had to say, ‘Look, it’s not your strength.’ “ Spagnoletti says he snagged four prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and persuaded two others who had offers from the federal prosecutor’s office to join his team. Roscoe Howard Jr., the former U.S. attorney for the District, says it is rare for someone to leave the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the D.C. government. “It just didn’t happen,” says Howard, a partner in the D.C. office of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton. “But Bob has the sort of talent and following that people would come over to his office.” Spagnoletti’s pitch: “You will not find any law office in the country with as diverse a practice as we have.” Spagnoletti also says lawyers have been meeting court deadlines and, for the most part, making all their court appearances. In the past, judges routinely blasted the office for failing to comply with orders or for missing deadlines or hearings. Spagnoletti says he has appeared in court on two occasions to deal with such problems. Adding to Spagnoletti’s momentum is the fact that a three-year dispute between the union representing the line attorneys and the D.C. government is on the verge of settlement. Anderson, who has been with the office for 14 years, says he currently makes $92,000. Under the collective bargaining agreement, he will be making $108,000 plus back pay. “With our wages going up, we will be more competitive with the federal government and people will stay,” says Anderson. CASH CRUNCH Spagnoletti says there are still areas of the office that are lacking — specifically, the Criminal Division. While the office survived cuts imposed on other agencies in next year’s D.C. budget, more than 100 positions will remain unfilled. Without additional funds or bodies, Spagnoletti says the office cannot handle certain cases that it has the authority to do. “Environmental crimes,” Spagnoletti says, “we can’t do them.” Even putting the new name in place has been affected by budget constraints. The attorney general title — made possible by an executive order issued by Mayor Williams — did not come with any additional responsibilities or money. In fact, three weeks after the announcement, the D.C. government’s Web site still refers visitors to the Office of Corporation Counsel, and Spagnoletti says his staff must use up all their old business cards and stationery before materials with the new name can be ordered. Spagnoletti, however, does have a few items noting his new title. He says a friend printed a set of business cards for him as a gift. And in spite of the budget issues, Spagnoletti says the new name better describes what he does for the District. It also makes things easier for his mother. Says Spagnoletti: “She was getting tired of explaining to everyone what it is I do.”

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