Accountability Not on the Ballot

As D.C. voters cast their ballots this week, one of the most consequential votes for our city's future isn't even listed. That's because the D.C. Council and Mayor have determined that our city "isn't ready" to elect an attorney general.

D.C. voters overwhelmingly passed a charter amendment to elect their attorney general in this election, but an entrenched Council and Mayor overruled the will of the people and canceled the vote.

An elected attorney general would have meant a new era of accountability for lawmakers, and independent oversight over city contracts. When given the choice of either upholding the will of the voters, or shielding themselves from accountability, the Council and Mayor chose themselves.

That is why I decided to run for attorney general, why I collected 4,800 signatures to get on the April primary ballot, why I filed the case of Zukerberg v. the Board of Elections to keep the AG election alive, and why I am taking the elected AG lawsuit to the D.C. Court of Appeals, our highest local court.

The appeals court has agreed to hear my case on an expedited basis. The court will decide whether our top legal officer is freely elected by the people, as the Charter requires, or is just another city employee, hired by the Mayor. Given the expanding federal investigation into the ethics and accountability of our city's lawmakers, a ruling that reinstates this election has never been more important.

Currently, the AG, our city's top legal officer, is a mayoral appointee, whose role has been to protect his client, the Mayor. That system has not worked in the past, and would not bring accountability in the future, no matter who is elected mayor.

When we amended our charter in 2010, it was concern that then-Mayor Adrian Fenty's attorney general, Peter Nichols, was turning the AG's office into a piggy bank for Friends of Fenty. In what an independent report concluded was "classic graft," the AG settled lawsuits and approved contracts with Fenty's former fraternity brothers, on favorable terms, with taxpayers footing the bill.

At the time, mayoral candidate Vincent Gray called Fenty's attorney general a "hatchet man" who "betrayed the public trust." Gray said that Nichol's "politicization of the [AG] office is inappropriate at best, and illegal at worst."

Fast forward to 2014 and Mayor Gray is now at the center of a federal investigation that has already claimed many of his top campaign aides. And once again, the appointed attorney general, Irv Nathan, is approving payments to friends of the mayor, and obstructing the investigation, by refusing to turn over relevant documents to the U.S. Attorney.

Voters should not expect much to change if Fenty acolyte Muriel Bower is elected. Bowser, along with candidates Jack Evans and Vincent Orange, voted to cancel the AG election, and her main backers are the old Fenty crew.

But the problem is not Gray, Fenty, Nathan, or Nichols. The problem is the appointed attorney general system facilitates corruption. That is why 43 out of 50 states elect their attorney generals. That is why 76 percent of D.C. voters approved the switch to the elected AG model in the 2010 ballot referendum.

That is also why AG Irv Nathan and the Council's lawyers have been fighting tooth and nail to derail my lawsuit, and even tried to shut down my campaign. Their legal arguments have morphed into personal attacks on me, for having the "temerity" to insist that elected officials obey the Charter and hold this election. Their argument to the court, which nicely sums up their world view, is that the intent of voters is "simply not relevant."

My lawsuit gives the court the opportunity to right this wrong, and put the attorney general election back on the ballot. Reformers on the Council have also introduced a new bill, which while not perfect, would also ensure that D.C. voters get a chance to elect an attorney general this year. I fully support the efforts of reform-minded council members to hold the attorney general election in 2014.

Both outcomes might mean that I would no longer be the sole candidate for attorney general. And while I hope voters recognize the commitment and legal qualifications I bring to this office, I would welcome some spirited competition in this race.

Good government is not going to come easily to the District of Columbia. To bring real change, it will take committed civic activists willing to fight against generations of entrenched graft and cronyism.

It is a fight worth having. We must put accountability on the ballot. D.C. voters are ready to elect an independent attorney general. The time is now.