Nickles under investigation for conflict of interest
For several weeks now, folks in the John A. Wilson Building have been atwitter that Attorney General Peter J. Nickles has run afoul of bar discipline authorities -- specifically, that he has violated strictures on conflicts of interest by participating in a case he once was on the other side of.
In comments after a D.C. Council news conference Monday, council member Phil Mendelson (D) stated on the record that Nickles had been referred to the Office of Bar Counsel, which handles legal discipline in the city. But the seriousness of that referral is not so clear.
Earlier this summer, a coalition of youth advocates led by D.C. Lawyers for Youth sent a letter to Bar Counsel Wallace E. Shipp Jr. asking for an investigation into Nickles's role in Jerry M., a class-action case concerning the treatment of juvenile offenders that has persisted since the 1980s. DCLY's executive director, Daniel Okonkwo, said Monday that an investigation is underway.
Prior to becoming AG, Nickles had served as the lead plaintiffs' lawyer in the case. Codes of attorney conduct strictly govern conflicts of interest; lawyers, generally speaking, are essentially prohibited from representing parties on opposite sides of a case.
In 2006, shortly before Fenty's general election victory, Superior Court Judge Herbert B. Dixon Jr. raised the question of a possible conflict in a bench conference, according to a court transcript. Nickles resigned from Jerry M. before joining the Fenty administration, but his involvement in juvenile justice has continued.
Fenty stood by court-initiated reforms and his well-regarded director of Youth Rehabilitation Services, Vincent Schiraldi, amid a string of incidents in which young men under the city's supervision were either the perpetrators or victims of violent crimes. But Schiraldi decamped for New York, and after a pair of high-profile incidents this spring -- the mass killing off South Capitol Street and the murder of D.C. middle-school principal Brian Betts, both perpetrated by former juvenile offenders -- political pressure mounted, and Nickles ordered a review of the the department's activities and operations.
That review was done in part by Robert Hildum, Nickles's deputy in charge of prosecuting juvenile cases. The report called for broad changes at the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, and Fenty chose Hildum to take over the agency. At the news conference announcing his appointment, Nickles began his remarks by describing his long involvement in Jerry M. and his "very personal interest in rehabilitation and reform." He noted that he'd worked with Hildum "almost on a daily basis."
Hildum's appointment, which sent favored Schiraldi heir Marc Schindler packing, prompted the advocates' bar complaint.
What is potentially serious is the role that Dixon has played. Two sources with close knowledge of the Jerry M. litigation say that the judge is concerned about Nickles's participation in the case and has communicated with the bar counsel about Nickles's ongoing involvement with juvenile justice issues. A judge's referral would carry great weight, but whether Dixon's action constitutes a "referral" is under dispute. Dixon would not comment last month, and Office of Bar Counsel does not comment on pending matters.
Nickles, reached Monday in Maine, said that he was aware of the advocates' complaint but said he knew "nothing" about any inquiry Dixon might have made.
"Any such complaint is frivolous," Nickles said, noting that he has not participated in the Jerry M. litigation since resigning the case in 2006. The complaint, he says, is suspect because it was made by persons "sympathetic to the prior leadership" -- meaning the Schiraldi/Schindler regime.
| September 20, 2010; 2:05 PM ET
Categories: Adrian Fenty, Phil Mendelson, The District
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