D.C. überactivist Dorothy Brizill is always a powerful presence in the city’s political rumbles. Now she’s making herself felt halfway around the globe.
In 2004, Brizill helped to vanquish a group of well-financed entrepreneurs who were seeking to launch a slots business in the District. Thanks in part to the Columbia Heights activist, the slots people never were able to get their initiative on the D.C. ballot.
The slots organizers also took their show on the road, attempting to get voters in the U.S. territory of Guam to sign off on the idea. Brizill lent her insights on the slots promoters via a radio program that airs there. In November 2006, Guam voters responded by rejecting the initiative.
The public backer of the Guam effort is using some home-court advantage to get a little payback: John Baldwin is suing Brizill in Guam’s Superior Court. Baldwin’s suit claims Brizill knowingly made false comments on the radio show about his involvement in the failed D.C. slots initiative. The complaint charges that the DC Watch executive director inappropriately linked him to the D.C. slots effort, which ended in the Board of Election and Ethics levying the biggest fine ever for elections law violations.
But Brizill’s lawyers say it’s not just D.C.’s prickly watchdog that Baldwin is targeting. Along the way, it appears that Baldwin is using his lawyers and expansive checkbook to stifle debate about the Guam slots initiative, which didn’t exactly die last year: Several online gaming publications report that Baldwin is planning to put the slots question before Guam voters again.
In the lawsuit, Baldwin makes it clear he has lots of room for other dissenters like Brizill. Among the defendants in the lawsuit, he lists John or Jane “Does 1 through 20.”
On the advice of her attorney, Brizill won’t talk about the case. But her lawyer, Art Spitzer of the ACLU, says Baldwin is unwittingly making Brizill a hero in Guam.
Spitzer calls Baldwin’s lawsuit “a classic SLAPP,” shorthand among activist-types for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. “This is typical of the heavy-handed SLAPP tactics,” says Spitzer of the suit, which he says is intended to “strike fear and terror in the hearts of people.” A SLAPP can take two or three years to settle and costs thousands of dollars to defend, according to Spitzer. “After that, lots of activists say, ‘I’ve learned my lesson. I’m not going to do that again,’ ” he says.
Brizill, though, has one big advantage. She’s not paying legal costs. Spitzer and his ACLU team in Guam are taking Baldwin on for nothing. And, so far, she hasn’t had to book a flight to the island for a court appearance.
Brizill sometimes gets rough treatment from public officials and even her friends in the press. Her questions during press conferences at times amount to a public prosecution. Some reporters even suggest that Mayor Adrian Fenty decided to bag his predecessor’s practice of holding a weekly press event just to avoid being berated by Brizill. (She’s even had a run-in or two with the Washington City Paper and LL.)
In his lawsuit, Baldwin claims no involvement whatsoever with the D.C. slots effort, despite press reports that he is a longtime associate of gambling promoter Shawn Scott, who bankrolled the 2004 slots initiative. His lawyers have the audacity to point out that Baldwin was never found to have violated any campaign laws, and that his company was never assessed a fine. True, the $622,000 fine levied by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics was charged to the Citizens Committee for D.C. Video Lottery Terminal Initiative—a local group set up by his buddy Scott.
Technically, Baldwin can claim clean hands.
Baldwin’s attorneys are even self-righteous enough to use the complaint against Brizill to impart a lesson on proper business practices. “In an ethical society,” the complaint preaches, “the ‘ends’ do not ‘justify the means,’ ” the complaint says. “But that is exactly the strategy being employed by anti-slot machine zealots who clearly believe that they, not Guam voters, should decide whether there should be slot machines at the Guam Greyhound racetrack.” The means, according to the suit, include “providing the media with a steady stream of inflammatory lies.”
For Spitzer, Brizill’s battle offers the chance to test a number of state laws passed to counter the “SLAPPing” of public advocates who usually operate on a shoestring. On March 22, a lawyer representing Brizill before the Guam Superior Court called for dismissal of the case solely on the grounds that Baldwin’s suit was a SLAPP as defined under Guam law.
“[Baldwin] may not have known it,” says Spitzer. “But Guam has the toughest anti-SLAPP law in the United States.” And Brizill “isn’t the kind of person to shy away from a fight when she knows she’s right.”
Fenty’s Top Legal Adviser Faces Residency Test
One of the first big announcements of the Fenty administration was the naming of his legal team. On Nov. 9, the mayor marched before the microphones to announce that longtime Fenty family friend and activist lawyer Peter Nickles would serve as the mayor’s legal counsel.
Nickles was a bold and popular choice. The crusading lawyer agreed to join a government he had sued to force reforms to the city’s mental health and juvenile justice systems.
But Nickles’ success in using the legal system to compel the city to address the needs of its most vulnerable citizens was conducted from a distance. He and his wife live in Great Falls, Va. Way back in November, when Nickles was introduced to the press, he indicated he would, as required by law, take up residency in the District. The mayor’s lawyer falls into the class of city workers required by law to become a resident within 180 days of their appointment.
With only 20 days left to make the move, Nickles says he’s been too busy keeping District agencies out of receivership to do much house shopping. To wit: He was able to convince the courts to give the city more time to reform the Department of Disability Services and St. Elizabeths Hospital. He obviously hasn’t been working with the real-estate agents for D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier and Fire Chief Dennis Rubin. Both have already found places in D.C. to hang their respective hats.
Now it looks as if Nickles is rethinking his move to the city. For him, the residency deadline might be decision time. “Quite frankly, it’s proceeding with great difficulty,” says Nickles of his search for a D.C. abode.
Nickles says his routine duties have forced him to sacrifice a lot of time with his family, “not to mention the horses, dog, and cats.” He isn’t eager to spend more time away from the spread looking for a house or an apartment.
And Nickles knows the days of just getting an address to meet the requirements of D.C. residency are over. “If I did that, it wouldn’t be long before some reporter like Loose Lips was tailing me and saying, ‘Hey, Nickles is only over there two days a week.’ ”
The rules governing what constitutes proof of D.C. residency are among the most draconian in the appointed-employee code. The city doesn’t just require new top-level hires to show a change of voter registration, a driver’s license, and a utility bill. Mayoral newcomers to the District must produce 15 pieces of documentation to prove they are serious about their move, according to the D.C. code.
At this point, Nickles has stopped making it clear he plans to go through with the residency rigmarole. Perhaps his only choice now is to get a waiver—which is another legal land mine. The waiver rules are very clear: Only hard-to-fill positions get an easy pass on the residency requirement, and that’s a tough case to make in a city of lawyers. Once hard-to-fill is off the table, Nickles would be in the squishy category of requesting a waiver for “exceptional circumstances.”
So let’s see, “exceptional circumstances” in Nickles’ case, would amount to arguing that he’s already established a life over the D.C. line. LL can already hear the howls from the Mark Plotkin types who see residency—and the payment of municipal taxes—as a litmus test for true dedication to the city.
Nickles realizes his extensive service in defense of D.C. residents isn’t likely to be an adequate defense for his desire to stay put in Virginia. “I don’t think my work trying to keep D.C. agencies out of receivership is going to change things,” says Nickles, who appears prepared to ask for a waiver. “I am going to discuss with the mayor how to proceed,” he says.
Out to Get Brown
Maybe At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown should have waited awhile before putting out his 2008 reelection campaign yard signs.
The battle about adult-themed entertainment in Ward 5 has afforded Brown-haters an opportunity to get some early digs in on the one-term councilmember. The attackers are hiding behind the moniker “Concerned Ward 5 Voter.”
A three-page letter stuck on windshields and in front doors claims Brown supports bringing “8 nude bars in Ward 5.” After that attention-grabber, the letter dredges up some old dirt from the previous campaign regarding Brown’s 2005 payments to his brother and father for work done on the 2004 campaign. The big, bold block letters at the end of the message read: vote no to councilmember kwame brown reelection campaign for 2008.
Brown did vote in committee to support a bill designed to allow a one-time transfer of liquor licenses for establishments displaced by the new Nationals ballpark in Southeast. That measure could have sent several nude dancing establishments to Ward 5. He later opposed the bill after attending several community meetings in the ward and voted against the measure June 5, despite a compromise struck by Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, which limits the license transfers to two per ward.
Brown isn’t surprised by the attacks, but he is questioning the tactics. “I found out about this from one of the parents at my kids’ school,” says Brown. His children attend public school in Ward 5. “They put these letters under windshield wipers and in mailboxes right next to the school where my kids are every day,” Brown says.
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