As attorney general of the District of Columbia, Peter J. Nickles is charged with enforcing the city’s laws. Yet the energetic Nickles these days appears to focus on another imperative altogether: shutting people’s mouths.
With Nickles’ guidance and blessing, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty manages to say a whole bunch of nothing every time he addresses any controversial matter. Agency directors and other high-ranking officials in the city bureaucracy have become silent under the AG’s reign. And by barring such officials from testifying before the D.C. Council, Nickles has even managed to mute the city’s legislative branch a bit.
In recent weeks, however, Nickles’ muzzling campaign has run into an unrepentant yapper. That would be Gregory L. Lattimer, one of the denizens of the District-suing plaintiff’s bar. Lattimer has made a specialty out of police shootings over the years, and his current case is a doozy: The September 2007 death of DeOnté Rawlings at the hand of D.C. cop James Haskel. Lattimer’s civil case on behalf of the Rawlings family is now before a federal judge.
But merely filing a $100 million suit against the District alleging wrongful death at the hands of the cops hasn’t landed him on Nickles’ shitlist. It’s that Lattimer might have the only mouth in town bigger than Nickles’.
Since filing his lawsuit against the city back in 2007, Lattimer has shared his investigative findings with reporters—crucially, depositions of key figures that contradict early claims from city officials—and bad-mouthed official investigative efforts at every turn.
Lattimer’s top Rawlings slams:
• He accuses the city of generating “bald-faced lie after bald-faced lie.”
• He accuses the city of being afraid of the truth: “If telling the truth makes me a bad guy, then I’m a bad guy.”
• And he suggests that city officials “took deliberate action” to hide what happened on Sept. 17, 2007—a startling claim. “Where I come from,” he says, “that’s a conspiracy.”
Such behavior raises tut-tuts from the likes of Nickles. “He understands how to try a case in the press,” the AG says of Lattimer. “It’s very easy for somebody on the outside to make a lot of speeches and say the government is covering this up or covering that up. I feel comfortable with our position in our case….All the rest is an attempt to generate a cloud of suspicion about the government’s defense.”
Generate a cloud of suspicion he certainly has: The May 29 edition of Washington City Paper detailed myriad violations of police procedure and investigative screw-ups, and no less than the Washington Post editorial board has written repeatedly asking for a full accounting of the issue.
It’s Lattimer’s ability to heave coal into the media furnace that has made him a target for Nickles. The firing began in late April, during an appearance on WTOP radio, days after the Post had published a Sunday A1 investigative story about the shooting.
The Post story was a Lattimer-assisted enterprise. It painted a detailed picture of what happened on the evening of Sept. 17, 2007.
When WTOP’s Mark Segraves asked Nickles a question about government transparency, the AG went into full outrage mode: “Somehow there was leaked to the Post the name of an individual who provided testimony indicating that the kid shot first—very critical testimony in the grand jury. That material should never have been disclosed.”
“I think I know how that was leaked,” he added, “and I intend to pursue the leaker.”
Pursue he did: A week after the WTOP interview, District lawyers filed a motion to hold Lattimer in contempt of court, saying it had “reasonable basis to conclude that Mr. Lattimer may have disclosed confidential information to a third-party,” in violation of a protective order issued by U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman last October.
What was that “confidential information”?
Friedman placed the contents of the District’s motion under seal, but according to Lattimer, Nickles and others were originally upset about the naming of Clifton Coleman, an 18-year-old who told police, after being arrested a month after the Rawlings incident, that DeOnté had shot at police.
One problem: If he told a grand jury that, it was no surprise. The Examiner named Coleman back on Oct. 18, 2007, as did the Post on the next day, citing “law enforcement sources.” And Lattimer says he had spoken to Coleman before police even found him, and his story then was different.
City lawyers, Lattimer says, have since backed off their claims regarding Coleman. Now, he says, they’re claiming that he handed the Post a report detailing information provided by Bobby McNair, a friend of Haskel’s who is crucial to understanding what happened to the minibike whose theft touched off the whole chain of events.
Lattimer says those claims aren’t credible. The city’s case, as he puts it, is that “the only person that would have done it is me, and therefore I’m guilty. The Pink Panther Detective School must be very proud of them to deduce that.” Plus, Lattimer points out, he had no reason to hand over the protected report: He had personally interviewed McNair in a deposition that he says is not covered by the protective order.
The city disagrees on that interpretation, incidentally: After City Paper ran its Rawlings story two weeks ago, city lawyers asked for further sanctions against Lattimer for disclosing his own deposition of a police sergeant.
Nickles insists that Lattimer shouldn’t be making the calls on what gets released to the public. “A lawyer who’s careful, if there’s any question, he goes to the court. The judge says, ‘Yes, you can’ or ‘No, you can’t.’ You don’t just decide the court order doesn’t apply here, and I’m going to take my case to the newspaper.”
One crucial fount of information remains out of the reach of Lattimer, the press, legislators, and District residents: The complete final report issued by the police department’s Force Investigation Team, the internal outfit charged with investigating all cop-shooting incidents. “This case is the first time where they have ever redacted or sought to withhold portions of the FIT report. Obviously that caught my eye,” says Lattimer
No surprise it would: Lattimer pressed the case that led to the establishment of the FIT teams a decade ago.
Under Nickles’ reasoning, the unredacted report is protected as part of the investigation conducted by local and federal authorities into whether Haskel or fellow cop Anthony Clay did anything criminally wrong on the night Rawlings was shot.
The report is “grand jury material,” Nickles claims, meaning it was part of the evidence presented to a panel asked to return indictments against Haskel and Clay—such documents are entitled to broad secrecy under federal court rules. It’s a cover commonly invoked by prosecutors, and a convenient one for Nickles, defending litigation and facing questions about a police investigation.
Witness the AG leaning on the feds: “There’s a law and a federal rule that applies to grand jury proceedings. The U.S. Attorney’s Office did not make public a significant amount of material. Mr. Lattimer was not happy about that.”
In any case, federal prosecutors declined to take any action against the officers implicated in the shooting. Lattimer, in fact, doubts that the case was ever presented for indictments—he’s interviewed every major player in the case; none have told him they’ve gone before a grand jury.
“The stuff we’re asking them for has nothing to do with the grand jury,” he says. “All we’re asking them for is the investigation they’ve conducted.”
The city’s secretive ways extend to other case materials besides that report. In response to Lattimer’s initial discovery request, the city handed over some 5,000 pages of documents. All of it was marked confidential, subject to the judge’s protective order. That included, Lattimer says, 250 pages of newspaper articles. And 30 pages of correspondence to and from Lattimer himself.
“How do you mark stuff about me confidential?” he asks. “‘Go to hell,’ that’s my response to that.”
Lattimer, not only a vet of the plaintiff’s bar but a former employee of the city’s legal shop, says he’s seen a remarkable difference since Nickles took over. “They usually don’t play like this,” he says. “They have their faults and all, but I had never found them to be in the business of deliberately trying to hide evidence. Whoever directs them now has them in the mindset of hiding evidence.”
Hmm, sounds familiar to LL’s ears: Perhaps the same mindset that has kept myriad officials from testifying before council oversight panels? That routinely invokes various legal privileges to shield city records from public scrutiny? That unilaterally ordered addresses removed from financial disclosure reports of city employees?
Nickles says that Lattimer “obviously has a vested interest in presenting his case, and he’ll have a chance to do that. There’ll be a trial. He ought not to get ahead of himself.”
The trial is in no danger of beginning anytime soon, thanks to a flurry of preliminary motions by the District. Lattimer says he’s confident Friedman will toss out the attempt to hold him in contempt. And he has no plans to stop talking about the case.
“I’ve violated nothing. I have done nothing,” he says. “I am guilty of one thing in this whole thing, and that is telling the truth about the shooting of DeOnté Rawlings.”
In what is rapidly becoming a District political tradition, Congress this week again managed to foil efforts to win Eleanor Holmes Norton a real vote in the House of Representatives.
In lamenting the setback, voting-rights advocates dwelled on the power of the gun lobby and the stubbornness of conservative Democrats. But hey, what about that Democratic president who was supposed to add a much-needed jolt to the cause?
Barack Obama hasn’t even changed his license plates, much less opened his mouth in support of D.C.’s vote.
Norton says the idea that Obama could say something and bring along dozens of gun-loving Democrats is fantasy. “We weren’t looking for public statements,” she says. “I wasn’t looking for the president. What good would he have done?”
Rather, Norton says, what she’s been looking for is someone to scare conservative Democrats, to convince them that allowing terrorist thugs to potentially stockpile .50-caliber armor-piercing weapons blocks from the halls of power, legally, might be a bad idea. Someone, she says, “who could be compelling on the homeland security notions.”
To that end, she says, she’s had discussions “at the highest levels of the White House with not just one official, but a number of officials, and essentially have not gotten any help.”
Norton declined to name specific officials she’s talked to, and refuted rumblings LL had heard that Attorney General Eric Holder had been tapped to weigh in on the security risks of gutting local gun laws. A letter from Holder, she says, would do little to convince congressional Blue Dogs.
Hope, of course, springs eternal. “These are my folks and I love them, and I continue to believe I could get some help from them, because nobody has said there’s nothing we can do over here,” Norton says. “But maybe that’s the game: Just don’t say anything.”
And if it isn’t “the game” that’s forestalling executive branch involvement, Norton says, it’s bureaucracy: “We suffer also from talking to people who then have to talk to people. Unfortunately, I have to say it: We’re not the most important thing on their agenda. Everybody has to talk to somebody else, even at the highest authorities.”
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