Charges of mismanagement, ineffectiveness, and wholesale incompetence in the city’s Office of the Corporation Counsel (OCC) were the buzz even before Joshua S. Wyner and his D.C. Appleseed Center, a nonprofit government-watchdog group, published their all-affirming report. The 50-page document, released Dec. 8, outlines the troubles in the agency, which touts a roster of 200 attorneys and a budget of $48 million$26 million of which is for settlements and judgments. The corporation counsel operates much like a state attorney general’s office and is charged with providing legal advice to the mayor and District government, defending the city against lawsuits, prosecuting some crimes, and protecting abused and neglected children.
U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman offered his own scathing assessment of the OCC in a Dec. 1 order, arising from a lawsuit against the city that he was hearing: “The appointment of a new Corporation Counsel last year at this timewhich was accompanied by promises of more effective case management, more efficient communications between the court and the office and within the office, and general reformgave the court hope that things might be improving. They are not. The Office of the Corporation Counsel appears to be infected with mismanagement, miscommunication andfranklyincompetence…. The continuing delays, procedural gaffes, and pleas for leniency are now threatening the effective administration of justice in the District of Columbia and can no longer be tolerated by this Court or by the people of the District of Columbia whom the office purports to represent.”
The judge gave the OCC until Dec. 15 to submit its defense against a potential contempt-of-court charge for its failure to handle a case involving a former D.C. Public Schools employee. LL had hoped to speak with Corporation Counsel Robert Rigsby that day at about 3 p.m. But that interview was canceled; the corporation counsel was still preparing the office’s response as the clock ticked down.
The problems in the OCC seem obstinatedespite intervention by the very esteemed John Ferren and the now-deceased Charles Ruff. Both men, at separate points in Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.’s last administration, held the title of corporation counsel and attempted to institute reform. But Ruff was called to duty by President Bill Clinton to serve as his White House counsel, and Ferren returned to the appellate court bench, leaving the task largely unfinished. A year ago, Mayor Anthony A. Williams appointed Rigsby the new corporation counsel. A master schmoozer and passionate OCC defender, Rigsby paraded a special advisory panel of judges and attorneys that he claimed would help him get things in shape. But a year later, the place is still a jumble of bumblers.
An internal survey of OCC staff, conducted in conjunction with the agency’s strategic planning process, reveals that even from the inside, things don’t look great. Staff report that there is a “cowboy attitude” among some members, manifested by their “midnight raids” of other offices for furniture, computers, and other resources; that the performance-evaluation process lacks integrity; that the operation is “top-heavy”; and that a culture of “crisis management” prevails, despite a plethora of senior counsels, deputy senior counsels, deputy counsels, and assistant deputy counsels.
Notwithstanding that LL and a whole bunch of other folks like to lambaste lawyers, the OCC is a significant agency. The city and, by extension, its taxpayers are at risk when the OCC can’t get its act together. Any Joe or Mary can, and frequently does, file a lawsuit against the District, believing that the city will be poorly represented by lawyers who either don’t take the time to adequately prepare their cases or lack sufficient legal support, resources, and supervision to win them. Already the city is facing a $98 million payment to the family of a police informant who was killed while working for the department. (The jury award is under appeal.) The District also faces a $1 billion lawsuit filed by families of mentally and developmentally disabled residents who died in government-subsidized group homes. And who knows how much the government will end up paying if it loses the class-action lawsuit recently filed by parents of children enrolled in the D.C. Public Schools’ special education program?
“If the OCC doesn’t do its job, the District is a less safe place to live and work,” asserts Wyner. It also becomes more expensive, LL might add, because the money for those lawsuits and settlements comes from tax dollars.
Even with lives and cash on the line, don’t expect the OCC to morph into a kickass, take-names agency. But it is becoming the transfer point for mayoral leftovers. Consider Chere Calloway, Erik Christian, and Ron Magnus, who appeared to come up short in their initial assignments and were shipped off to the corporation counsel.
Calloway was brought in from Michigan in 1999 to run the mayor’s highly touted managed-competition initiative, which was expected to lead to more privatization of government services. The initiative, which was supposed to save the city millions of dollars, never got off the ground. But instead of sending her packing, the mayor’s office sent her to the OCC with a $112,110 annual salary and the post of senior deputy for management and operations.
Christian, who from 1999 until earlier this year was the deputy mayor for public safety and justice, had such a tense relationship with then-Interim Fire Chief Tom Tippet and Police Chief Charles Ramsey that he couldn’t manage either of them. All that trembling and quaking Christian did, however, didn’t hurt his image: He became the $118,314 per year counsel to the mayor, replacing the irascible Max Brown, who left the government last year. Technically, Christian remains the mayor’s special counsel, but he actually is in the OCC, handling prosecution of alleged slumlords.
Magnus was hired in 1999 to lobby on regional issues in the Office of Intergovernmental Relations, but sources in the mayor’s office say he flopped in that role. He landed in the OCC, developing staff training programs. LL thinks it’s unconscionable that Magnus earns more than his entire training budget; he makes $75,454 a year but has a budget of only $26,000 for 200 lawyers.
Rigsby, however, says he’s damn lucky to have Calloway, Christian, and Magnus. He says Christian has more than 12 years of litigation experience and is a “very good lawyer, a very good prosecutor.” Calloway was asked to join the OCC, says Rigsby, because she has a “very good reputation” all over Michigan. LL hasn’t heard mention of her reputation here in the District.
“The law requires me to have a director of training; that is what Ron Magnus is doing,” adds Rigsby.
“We’re a good office with a bad reputation,” Rigsby continues, refusing to respond to Friedman’s indictment. But another OCC official charges that federal judges frequently hold District lawyers to a different standard from those in the U.S. Attorney’s office or the Office of the Public Defender. Rigsby acknowledges the problems cited in the Appleseed report, which he says the OCC requested. He says that since assuming office, he has made some changes, bringing in more qualified managers, holding attorneys more accountable, and attempting to institute a computerized case-management system. He also says he is trying to recruit law firms to provide pro bono services to the District and may consider an incentive program to stimulate better performance from his staff.
“The office is going through growing pains, like the rest of the city,” says Rigsby, adding that his new people have been in place only since July. “Give us an opportunity to perform.”
How long? LL asks. She is weary of this we-need-time mantra from every Williams appointee. One thing LL does find plausible: Given that it has only $22 million for salaries and other resources, there is strength in the argument that the OCC is underfunded. But the city as a whole faces a potential $250 million deficit for fiscal 2001. Money is tight; Rigsby and many of his not-ready-for-prime-time lawyers will have to polish their act, using the current cast of characters and the same old set.
THE ETHICAL APPROACH
Thomas Tucker, the “go-getter” special assistant to Mark Jones, deputy chief of staff for external affairs in the mayor’s office, has been booted. Judiciary Square sources say Tucker was asked to resign after he was allegedly found using his influence to rack up a bunch of bennies, the most recent being two tickets to the Caribbean. Tucker allegedly got the tickets under the pretense that they were for the mayor. “The guy didn’t have any boundaries,” says one highly placed executive-branch source. “All the time, there were these allegations. This was the first time Mark was able to prove anything.”
When LL reached Jones, he was coy: “Thomas is not here, because I’m going in a new direction,” he says. “I want someone with more local political experience.”
Jones says Tucker, who earned slightly less than $59,000 a year, achieved permanent status in June. He has been placed on two weeks’ paid administrative leave, which is due to expire on Dec. 22.
LL admits to being crazy, but stupid she ain’t. District employees aren’t placed on immediate administrative leave because the boss wants to go in a different direction. Jonetta Rose Barras
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