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D.C.’s chief file clerk could be a powerful figure—if the city would hire one.

The District’s Office of Recorder of Deeds, in one form or another, predates home rule by almost two centuries. It was once among D.C.’s most highly esteemed public positions. Yet the city has gone without a permanent recorder of deeds for more than two years, with Deputy Recorder Larry Todd filling in on an “acting” basis for the past nine months.

The job itself is mundane: keeping track of the paperwork generated by property transactions in the District. But until the 1950s, the position was a presidential appointment and the highest local office to which an African-American could aspire. Beginning with James Garfield’s assignment of Frederick Douglass to the deeds office in 1881, it became customary for presidents to install their leading black supporters in the position.

The office’s status has diminished over the decades. In 1980, it lost its relative independence and was folded into what is now the Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR), under the supervision of the chief financial officer—who is now responsible for filling the position. Its offices—in a 1942 art moderne jewel box near Judiciary Square, with murals of the African-American experience—were allowed to decay, their brass finishings painted brown. A year and a half ago, the administration considered selling the property.

Local historian and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Alexander Padro, who led the effort against the now-abandoned sale plans, says that officials at the time were also talking about erasing the recorder altogether. OTR officials strongly deny that claim, but they have let the position go unfilled all this while.

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If only they had known the power they were trifling with. And if only Mayor Anthony A. Williams had known, he might not be mired in his forgery-induced predicament. With the job’s highly politicized history comes a legal oddity: The recorder of deeds is, besides the mayor and the members of the D.C. Council, the only District employee exempt from the Hatch Act, the federal law that restricts the political activity of D.C. government workers.

This April, District teacher Tom Briggs was fired because he’d run for office in 2000, a simple act of civic involvement prohibited under the Hatch Act. (He was rehired in June.) The law also prevented Williams loyalists in the administration from playing a significant role in his re-election campaign.

The recorder, however, is immune to such restrictions. Ana Galindo-Marrone, senior attorney for the Hatch Act unit of the United States Office of Special Counsel, explains: “If you’re not covered by the Hatch Act, then, for example, you could run for partisan public office. You’d be able to engage in political activity while on duty. You’d be able to solicit, accept, and receive political contributions. And you’d be able to encourage or discourage the political activity of people who have business before your agency.”

Theoretically, at least, a recorder of deeds could play a large role in a campaign without leaving the city payroll. That’s what presidents expected of their appointed recorders. “Whether they worked [on their official duties] or not was strictly up to them,” says Philip Ogilvie, former official D.C. historian, of recorders of long ago. “They had a staff to do the work.”

A trusted political aide in the recorder’s office would have given Williams one more paid campaign worker, amounting to a 50 percent increase over pre-petition-fiasco core staffing levels. Politicking by the recorder at taxpayer expense might be frowned on by the media scolds and ethics experts, but it’s a moot point anyway. Like former staffers from the Marion Barry and Sharon Pratt Kelly administrations, the people in the Williams camp seem to know nothing about the recorder’s traditional prerogatives.

Todd, the acting recorder, has been recommended for the top job by Herbert Huff, deputy chief financial officer for OTR. But with his master’s degree in information-management systems, was even Todd aware of his Hatch-exempt status?

“No, I wasn’t.” CP