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Jonetta Rose Barras: D.C. ethics panel's big job

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

I like Robert J. Spagnoletti. He is the lawyer Mayor Vincent C. Gray nominated earlier this week to serve as chairman of the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, or BEGA. Deborah Lathen and Republican Laura Richards are the two other members appointed to the three-person panel.

The brainchild of Ward 4 Councilwoman Muriel Bowser, the BEGA was part of the comprehensive ethics reform approved last year by the legislature. The board is responsible for developing rules and regulations to guarantee elected officials and employees follow ethical standards consistent with the District's Code of Conduct. It also would investigate allegations of wrongdoing by any elected official and ensure transparency in government operations.

The board nominations were eagerly anticipated. By law, they were supposed to have been made in March.

"The priority was on quality rather than speed," Gray said in his defense during a press conference. "I felt it important to nominate people who could put their imprint," on the office.

While all the members appear to bring strong backgrounds to the job, Spagnoletti's nomination, especially, makes the delay worth it.

"D.C. residents are entitled to know elected officials and public employees are working to highest ethical standards," he said. "I come to this board with integrity and I intend on leaving that way."

Most people may remember Spagnoletti as Gray's lawyer in the battle with former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty over the fence that Fenty charged Gray constructed around his house without a permit. Spagnoletti also represented the city auditor in her fight with Fenty over the release of select documents.

That anti-Fenty role is not what makes Spagnoletti a great choice. His impeccable credentials and past record of government service suggest he will be a strong leader, selecting quality staff, implementing sound procedures, ultimately creating the kind of operation envisioned by the law.

I first met Spagnoletti in 2004, when then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams tapped him to be corporation counsel. I had a low opinion of that office. It seemed, in a city overrun by lawyers, to be a haven for rejects from the private sector. Further, the staff of attorneys lost far too many cases, costing District residents hundreds of millions of dollars.

Prior to his arrival, few of us really knew Spagnoletti. He had been an assistant U.S. attorney. But he quickly earned praise, particularly from those in regular contact with his office.

His spokesperson, Traci Hughes, was probably the most professional of government staffers, charged with providing information to the public. Spagnoletti also often made himself, personally, available. He didn't simply cause the name of the agency to be changed to Office of the Attorney General; he also upgraded the quality of legal work.

We had our fights. Still, I never lost respect for him and lamented his decision to leave government service in 2006. I'm glad he's back.

The council should move expeditiously to confirm Spagnoletti's nomination -- if it is serious about restoring the public's trust in the District government.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Monday and Wednesday. Email her at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Monday and Wednesday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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