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A city official tries to fix lawyers’ writing by firing them.

Editors call on The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s slim but authoritative guide to constructing prose, to justify every kind of deletion. Shaky parallels, excess words, mixed metaphors—in the name of Strunk and White, red pencils obliterate them all.

Now Angel M. Cartagena Jr., chair of the D.C. Public Service Commission, is trying to use Strunk and White’s authority to eliminate an entire government office.

Cartagena believes in the importance of good grammar. When he started his job two years ago, he says, he gave copies of The Elements of Style to the 10 attorneys in his general counsel’s office and told them it would be “the objective standard that they would be held to.” According to Cartagena, the lawyers didn’t listen.

On May 15, Cartagena put out a press release announcing that he planned to restructure his office, eliminating the staff-attorney jobs from the general counsel’s office and farming out their work to private firms. The lawyers, he says, “just refuse to do their jobs adequately.”

“You would be shocked that people making 70 [thousand], 80 [thousand], 100,000 dollars per year would turn out the product that they do,” he says.

The attorneys are calling the move an unlawful power play, stemming from a personal vendetta. “What he is doing is completely illegal,” says one. “There are statutes that say that you can’t just unilaterally make a decision like this.” (Rather than appointing a spokesperson from their ranks, the seven lawyers protesting the move give joint interviews, requesting that their remarks not be attributed to individuals.)

By the lawyers’ account, the announcement followed a blowup earlier in the month between the chair and his staff. “On March 6, we had a meeting, and [Cartagena] comes in yelling and screaming, out of control,” says one attorney. “He said that it was the second time he had gotten a draft order with ‘and/or’ in it, and if he got another one he would personally fire that person on the spot and ‘throw their shit out the window.’”

Strunk and White describe “and/or” as a “device, or shortcut, that damages a sentence and often leads to confusion or ambiguity.” But the attorneys maintain that “and/or” is common in legal documents, even in the Supreme Court. They wrote Cartagena a letter demanding an apology for his “inexplicable” behavior, which they said amounted to “verbal abuse and harassment.”

“I apologized to them personally for the profanity,” Cartagena says, “but I would not apologize for my message.” Responding to their letter, Cartagena wrote that the grammar flap occurred because many of the attorneys “have made no attempt to learn the fundamental rules of writing.”

“I strongly believe,” Cartagena wrote, “that many of you…are using my failure as a human being to excuse your consistently poor performance as attorneys.”

Cartagena says that he is frustrated with more than just the grammar issues, charging that the lawyers don’t put in enough hours and neglect other duties. The attorneys say that they all received ratings of satisfactory or better on their most recent performance reviews.

Even if their job performance is lacking, that doesn’t give him the right to unilaterally abolish their office, says D.C. Councilmember Sharon Ambrose. She chairs the council’s Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which oversees Cartagena’s commission. “If you want to get rid of someone, there’s a process,” Ambrose says.

Cartagena says that he does have the authority to hire and fire without consulting his superiors or fellow commissioners. But when Ambrose ordered him to explain the legal basis for his plan within six days, he missed the deadline. “If you can’t respond to this quickly,” Ambrose says, “it suggests you didn’t really have the basis for the action.” At press time, Ambrose had still not heard from Cartagena.

The attorneys argue that consumers are going to take a hit if the action goes through. The Public Service Commission oversees telecommunications, gas, and electric regulations in the District, and the attorneys say that they are instrumental in guiding policy. Giving their work to outside lawyers, they claim, would cost the office its objectivity. “The people who can do [utilities-regulation] work are already doing it for someone with an agenda,” one attorney says. “There will be significant problems with conflicts of interest.”

It would also cost the District more money, the staff attorneys say: “It’s ludicrous to suggest that it would be cheaper to contract work to lawyers who usually bill at least $200 per hour.”

Cartagena dismisses such concerns, claiming that outside firms already do most of the commission’s major legal work and that economists and engineers do much of the policy work his house attorneys are taking credit for. “The idea that they alone serve the policy function is somewhat misleading,” he says.

The uproar over the move has forced Cartagena to back down. He has postponed the effective date for the realignment and firings from June of this year to February 2003. And he says that his plan could yet be revised. Things have not been, in other words, finalized—a word that Strunk and White single out as being “peculiarly fuzzy and silly.” “Does it mean ‘terminate,’” they ask, “or does it mean ‘put into final form’?” CP