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D.C. Mayor-elect Adrian Fenty appointed a new D.C. attorney general as well as his general counsel on Nov. 9 as part of a strategy meant to gain greater District control over criminal prosecutions and remove several troubled District agencies from court oversight. “It’s a local-control issue,” Fenty tells Legal Times. “We need to have our own statehood and autonomy.” Fenty appointed Linda Singer to become D.C. attorney general when he takes office on Jan. 2. Fenty turned to Peter Nickles, an old family friend and a near legend in Washington legal circles, to serve as his general counsel. Nickles, 68, has worked for Covington & Burling for the more than four decades since graduating from Harvard Law School in 1963. Singer, executive director of the District-based nonprofit Appleseed, is a 1991 Harvard Law School graduate and former public defender with the Legal Aid Society in New York City. Singer, 40, says Fenty called her a couple of weeks ago about the job, which was “a complete surprise.” “I knew him slightly and have admired what he has done,” Singer says. “It’s not something I was looking for. I loved working at Appleseed, to get to do what you care about with smart, dedicated people. But it’s also something I couldn’t turn down.” Singer says she wants the D.C. Attorney General’s Office to prosecute more District crimes now handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of Columbia, which prosecutes most felonies charged against adults under the District’s unusual bifurcated criminal justice system. Such a change would require an act of Congress, because the D.C. Council does not have authority over the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “I think the mayor has been clear, and I share his vision here, that we want to run as much of our city government as we can,” Singer says. “There’s a legitimate role for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but there’s also a need for a local government to govern itself and govern its city.” Channing Phillips, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, says any transfer of prosecutorial duties is a legislative matter. “It is a political issue that we stay out of,” he says. Nickles has known Fenty’s family since Fenty was a boy and Nickles was a running partner of Fenty’s father, Phil, who owns the Fleet Feet running shop in Adams Morgan with his wife, Jan. Nickles has also represented Fenty in some legal matters. “It’s been a fairly long association, and for me it’s a unique opportunity because I’ll be acting not only as a lawyer but as Adrian’s senior adviser,” Nickles says. “I’ve never worked for the government. I’ve sued the government.” Nickles has been a thorn in the D.C. government’s side for decades, representing some of the District’s most vulnerable citizens in class actions that led to court monitors or receiverships for several agencies, including the Oak Hill youth-detention facility and the city’s mental-health services. He says he’ll represent those same citizens’ interests next year from inside the D.C. government by helping reform dysfunctional agencies so they no longer need court oversight. “You’ve got a huge bureaucracy, and you don’t have people on the ground to deal with the people who need help. You’ve got a culture of inefficiency and a lack of accountability,” he says. “We want to build in a system of accountability and commitment to excellence in these agencies. Those [employees] who perform are going to have it really great, and those who don’t perform aren’t going to have it so great.” Fenty says Nickles brings “not only his talent and his institutional knowledge. It’s his passion. That’s what these issues have needed for a long time.” Fenty became familiar with Singer through her work with Appleseed and as a public-schools advocate (her 7-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter both attend D.C. public schools). Fenty called Singer “a pure talent” and “a great find for the District of Columbia.” [ For more on Singer, see Balancing Act.] Singer’s appointment, which still must be confirmed next year by the D.C. Council, surprised some insiders because she is not licensed to practice law in the District. Although Singer has trial experience as a public defender in New York, she has never worked as a prosecutor or in government. Singer has been a member in good standing of the New York Bar since 1992, and her application for a D.C. law license is pending. Under a D.C. Court of Appeals rule, she will have 360 days after starting the job to become a member of the D.C. Bar or face possible suspension or removal. Singer says she has gained valuable managerial experience working for Appleseed, where she has been since she was hired as its first full-time staffer in 1993. Appleseed has grown to become one of the largest pro bono legal centers in the nation, with 18 branches in the United States and Mexico working on issues including immigration, education, and health care. Singer says she wants to increase the pro bono work of lawyers with the Attorney General’s Office. Former D.C. Attorney General Robert Spagnoletti, who was credited with streamlining the office and increasing its accountability, resigned on Nov. 5, saying Fenty should be able to choose his own attorney general. Chief Deputy Attorney General Eugene Adams has been serving as acting attorney general. Singer says she plans to take some fact-finding trips, similar to Fenty’s cross-country trips to seek advice from mayors about his possible takeover plan for the D.C. public school system. Singer wants to meet with attorneys general in New York, Connecticut, and California. “We’ve got a lot that we can learn and borrow from other places,” she says. Assistant Attorney General Steven Anderson, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1403, supports transferring the prosecution of all crimes in D.C. Superior Court to the D.C. Attorney General’s Office. The union local represents nonsupervisory lawyers at the office. Such a move, however, would require a shift of federal funding to the District to compensate for the increased workload. “We are short-staffed some places. Generally, we have what it takes to get by,” Anderson says. “Big firms always have Oriental rugs and walnut paneling. We could do with more than we have. We do need better office equipment and Xerox machines and stuff like that.” The union’s relationship with Spagnoletti was “hot and cold,” but morale is good, in part because binding arbitration with the city led to a linking of lawyers’ salaries to the federal salary schedule for attorneys, Anderson says. The Attorney General’s Office had been susceptible to frequent turnover because lawyers would gain experience and then leave for higher-paying jobs with the federal government or in private practice. Anderson says he doesn’t know Singer, but he hopes she will be both union-friendly and employee-friendly. As Fenty’s general counsel, Nickles plans to hold employees accountable in dysfunctional agencies that have fallen under court oversight. Nickles says he has met with some agency heads and chiefs of staff to talk about court orders and commitments made by the agencies. Nickles was involved in class action litigation, dating back more than three decades, that resulted in a court-appointed monitor to oversee reform of the District’s once-notorious Oak Hill youth detention facility. He represented male and female prisoners in multiple suits over inadequate health care and overcrowding at the District’s Lorton prison complex before it closed in 2001. Nickles also pursued litigation that led to the District’s failing mental health system being placed under court receivership. Nickles says he has studied other current suits challenging the District’s special-education, mental-retardation and foster-child-placement services. His decades of experience as a litigator have given him “a lot of knowledge of what not to do,” he says. “You never promise to do things that you know you can’t do or that you’re not certain you can do,” he says. “The District has made lots of promises that haven’t been kept. This time, we’re going to make sure they are kept.”
Brendan Smith can be contacted at [email protected].

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