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The City Council Needs to Properly Fund the Office of Attorney General

Considering that three-quarters of DC voters last November elevated the Office of Attorney General (OAG), headed by an independently elected AG, to be co-equal with the Office of the Mayor and with the City Council, it is now time that said office be properly funded in order to allow it to more effectively function and fully carry out its responsibilities and initiatives for the benefit of the citizens.

Currently, the OAG’s funding is a mere one percent, or so, of the District’s budget; clearly, this is inadequate in light of that office’s enhanced mandate and scope. Attorney General Racine, however, has proposed a solution.

DC law now requires that any and all monies received as a result of judgments from lawsuits and other legal actions brought by the AG must be transferred to the District’s general fund to be allocated through the standard appropriations process.

We prefer the AG’s idea that up to $20 million collected annually as a result of the OAG’s work –- the kinds of dollars that we know politicians always salivate over as unanticipated windfalls and thus easily diverted for their pet projects –- instead be retained by the OAG so to make possible the re-establishment of the former consumer protection fund and to, as stated its fiscal year 2016 budget submission executive summary document, “pay for an additional 75 lawyers, support staff and technology to investigate and pursue companies and individuals suspected of defrauding city residents.”

And if anyone thinks that $20 million is “pie in the sky” fantasizing, it should be noted that the OAG’s Consumer Protection Section, even with its currently small staff, has so far since the first of October succeeded in obtaining a $21.5 million settlement against Standard & Poor’s; upwards to an additional $90 million is anticipated from its proceeding against online hotel services.

And should skeptics think that allowing the OAG to retain these funds derived from its success in obtaining judgments and settlements on behalf of us would amount to nothing more than creating some big slush fund to be created with no oversight, we are not be one of those skeptics.

Attorney General Racine may be a political being given that he is an elected official, but he is not one to wallow in cash largesse; he has an admirable record already of careful fiscal management as evidenced by his having returned to the District’s coffers over half of the $150,000 allocated by the City Council for transition expenses following his election. After all, he comes out of a private sector business background having been the managing partner of a 600-attorney law firm with a $350 million plus budget.

More importantly, though, is the AG’s vision for what some key priorities of his office are to be, and for which he did promise DC voters would be an important and serious focus: “Consumer Protection and Community Outreach; Affordable Housing Protection and Enforcement; Public Safety and Criminal Justice, Protecting Children and Families, and Juvenile Rehabilitation; and Protecting Taxpayers, Workers, and Enforcing Honest Government.”

These priorities are clearly not only desirable, but urgent, and we are impressed that they are at the top of the AG’s “to do” list. His succinct articulation of their importance is included in the budget submission executive summary noted above, and to provide our readers with an example of what favorably has caught our attention, we share his statements from two of the four outlined priority areas:

“The Consumer Protection and Community Outreach Initiative will increase OAG’s capacity to protect residents by going after and prosecuting unscrupulous persons and businesses that choose to disregard applicable District and federal law and prey on the District’s most vulnerable residents. The investments in this initiative will allow the Attorney General to enforce District laws by materially expanding OAG’s capacity to investigate and prosecute. . . . The community outreach unit will ensure that OAG is attentive to the needs of the community and is accountable to the District residents.

“Mayor Bowser and the Council have prioritized the need for the District to be a national leader in the provision of affordable housing. OAG’s Affordable Housing Protection and Enforcement Initiative will support this priority and more vigorously protect the rights of homeowners and tenants. This initiative will fully enforce the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act and the District’s requirements for set-asides for affordable housing. The new staff will safeguard residents against predatory tax lien and reverse mortgage practices. . . . [M]ore must be done to help low- and moderate-income residents maintain their residency in the District of Columbia.”

None of what the AG has put forth for the benefit of all District citizens will be possible unless the Council enacts the change in the law needed to allow for the OAG to retain funds and to then agree with allowing retention of up to $20 million. We are disappointed that the Mayor seemingly did not understand how this would be of great benefit for the common good. We urge the members of the Council to support the AG’s proposal on behalf of the voters.