Listening to Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) during a recent interview in his 11th-floor office at One Judiciary Square, it is easy to mistake the city’s chief prosecutor for a passionate social worker. He is deep in the juvenile justice advocacy weeds, discussing a program he and Hilary Cairns at the DC Department of Human Services (DHS) created to keep 1,300 youth off probation, out of juvenile detention or worse. “The overwhelming number of juvenile offenses are in our bailiwick,” Racine explained.
After taking office, Racine said he looked for “innovative” ways to pull youth off the incarceration track. He discovered ACE (Alternative to Court Experience), run by Cairns. “We married up almost immediately with [her],” continued Racine. “We gave Hilary what she didn’t have: kids. We started diverting young people coming into us fresh from arrest for mostly non-serious, non-violent cases.”
At least 80 percent of the juveniles who have completed ACE have not been rearrested. About 72 percent of those youth have come from Wards 5,7 and 8.
Some District residents have said the prosecutor should be prosecuting, not molly-coddling bad kids. It’s all about public safety, Racine explained. Further, “people appreciate when there is a well-thought-out program that tries to give kids better opportunities to go in the right direction.” Serious felony crimes are prosecuted by the US Attorney – a fact many in the city want to change.
Despite its status as a ward of the US Congress, DC aggressively fought for an elected attorney general. Racine won the post with nearly 36 percent of the 117,377 ballots cast in the 2014 general election. He took office in 2015, assuming leadership of the Office of the Attorney General (OAG). With more than 600 employees and a fiscal 2018 budget of $74 million, the OAG is responsible for all things legal, from civil litigation to child support to public safety. It is the only entity authorized to represent the District in court.
Racine knows something about District jurisprudence. In 1992, he became a staff attorney with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. He later served as an associate White House counsel in President Bill Clinton’s (D) administration. Racine eventually jumped back into private practice, becoming managing partner of Venable LLP in 2006. He left the high life to run for attorney general.
Racine will know soon enough whether he has accurately assessed what residents want or don’t want in an attorney general. He is up for reelection. The primary is scheduled for June 19. The general election follows on Nov. 6.
While a Washington Post poll released last summer found that 74 percent of the respondents had no opinion of the attorney general, most of the folks I spoke with for this article who pay close attention to Racine and his office praised his work.” I have seen greater sensitivity to the priorities of citizens, especially with the Consumer Protection Act,” said DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D), who was a force behind establishing an elected attorney general. “His integrity is unquestioned. He is very easy to work with. He’s open to ideas, and where there is disagreement he is willing to listen.”
Will Merrifield, a staff attorney with Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, who has worked closely with the OAG over the past three years, called Racine a “good manager. I think he is doing a great service for the city.”
At-Large Councilmember Robert White (D), who worked for a short time as Racine’s director of community outreach, echoed those sentiments. White didn’t support Racine in the 2014 race, but he said both as an employee and later as a councilmember he has “developed the highest respect for Karl,” and lauded his juvenile justice work. “Look at the people he has appointed. You see them not as prosecutors but public defenders.”
“Incarceration is not always the way to improve public safety. It has to be both preventative and restorative, balanced against people’s desire to feel safe,” added White.
“When Karl Racine was elected I was encouraged that someone with his background, pedigree, knowledge and experience was coming in,” said Eric W. Payne, a lawyer and former DC government manager. Payne worked in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) in 2008 when he raised concerns about contracting irregularities. He subsequently was fired and blackballed, leading him to file a lawsuit against the DC government. He said he was disappointed by Racine’s handling of his case. “I thought he would mitigate the damages. Instead, he decided to prosecute the case while persecuting my family.”
Racine’s decision not to settle was political, said Payne, noting the case involved actions taken by former CFO Natwar Gandhi, former Council Chair Vincent Gray, who later became mayor, and then Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. “The chief lawyer for the District of Columbia should be beyond reproach and not get down in the pigsty, choosing to appease various political constituencies.” Even after a jury ruled in Payne’s favor, “It took seven months for the District of Columbia to fully resolve the case, which again was political,” added Payne.
Racine said he disposed of Payne’s case in the best interest of the District.
Dorothy Brizill, head of the government watchdog group DC Watch, said she has followed Racine since he was a candidate in 2014. She has had numerous interactions with him and his office. She has made requests for information, including some through the Freedom of Information Act, but has yet to receive much of what she sought. Her dealings with the attorney general have caused her to conclude that neither he nor his operation are open or transparent. Most egregious, she said, is the absence of a strategic plan and his frittering away of agency resources for needless travel. “He’s taken this scattershot approach. He’s all over the place and all over the country,” she continued, citing as an example a trip to Africa to participate in a conference on sex trafficking on that continent.
She further complained about his work around national issues. “There are so many other issues that cry out for attention from the attorney general,” continued Brizill. “I am appalled at what Racine has done. [The OAG] is one of three agencies I am most concerned about.”
“Modestly speaking,” said Racine, “I think my colleagues and I have done a pretty good job of delivering on the promise of establishing an independent attorney general.” Mild-mannered, often garbed with impeccable K Street panache, he has never publicly displayed emotional reaction to criticism of his work or his office. “It’s incredibly important to create an environment and culture where we’re not only doing a good job for the District, but we’re also standing up for DC values on a national level.”
It’s important to contextualize the criticism. One person bashed the OAG for his handling of an individual lawsuit. Another accused the attorney general of being distracted and running around like a chicken without its head. How do those complaints stack up to Racine’s record?
Let the Record Speak
Beyond his public safety work, during the interview Racine cited his accomplishments, including creating a “stand alone” Office of Consumer Protection. The 11-lawyer operation has aggressively prosecuted local violators and joined other attorneys general in legal actions, some of which have garnered multimillion-dollar settlements.
Closer to home, the OAG took on a catering company that overbilled the District for school lunches and a local strip-club owner guilty of fraud. It pressured storefronts to stop selling dangerous synthetic drugs, cutting into a lucrative illegal industry. He brought funeral home owners to his office, warning them that trying to circumvent the law could bring them a world of trouble.
More recently, the office filed suit against JD Nursing and Management Services, including Chief Executive Officer James N. Ibe, for alleged wage theft. Racine has asked for $250,000 in back wages and damages for 27 former employees.
His litigation around affordable housing has garnered him the “champion of the people” label. He has hit the wallets of developers, landlords and management companies attempting to circumvent the city’s rent control laws or those whose violations of the housing code cause low-income and working-class residents to suffer squalid living conditions. In at least one case, the court supported his demand for receivership of a private apartment complex. Additionally, former and current residents of Terrace Manor apartments in Ward 8 could receive as much as $10,000 each as restitution for rent they paid when their units lacked heat or hot water and were filled with malfunctioning appliances, rodents and other code violations.
“I do believe the OAG enforcement actions have had a real, and rather immediate, impact on the lives of vulnerable residents,” said Racine. Prior to his office’s assault, tenants were left few choices; either they had to move out or, absent sufficient resources, continue living in squalor. “Now the choice is different,” added Racine.
Merrifield knows what the terrain was like for tenants and their advocates before Racine. He was on the frontline as they fought well-financed landlords and a disinterested local government.
“Mr. Racine and his office took meaningful and practical steps,” said Merrifield, adding the attorney general has been respectful of the work already done by people like him and the tenants themselves. The OAG “has really sent a message to the broader community, to people investing in what they call distressed assets who are not putting any money in them and leaving them to fall down – that this is not an investment strategy.”
Slumlords are learning they can either turn over the buildings so tenants can exercise their rights or they can spend millions to repair the properties, said Merrifield. At a Congress Heights apartment complex where he and the OAG sued the owner, tenants are poised to purchase their building and renovate it in partnership with a reputable nonprofit developer.
Standing Up to the Federal Bullies
Racine also hasn’t been shy or apologetic about pushing back against a federal executive branch running roughshod over states and local governments and perhaps causing irreparable harm to the country’s democracy. He and his office have fought against President Donald Trump’s various orders, including a ban on Muslim immigrants entering the country; efforts to limit abortions for young immigrant women; and a decision to kick out of the country the children of immigrants known as “Dreamers.” With Maryland State Attorney Brian E. Frosh, Racine filed a lawsuit accusing Trump of violating the emoluments clauses of the US Constitution, which prohibit the president from accepting gifts or payments from foreign or state governments. A court appearance has been scheduled for Jan. 25.
Contradicting Brizill’s assessment, Council Chair Mendelson said he believes the AG’s work around national issues reflects “our values,” and because the cases are done with other attorneys general the cost is not fully borne by the District.
Racine’s peers have indicated their evaluation of his work. They elected him chair of the east region of the National Association of Attorneys General. “Should I be in good health and remain as AG, in 2020, I’m slated to be president of the NAAG. I think it’s important to play a thoughtful and meaningful role in those types of organizations. It can only enhance DC’s profile and future. When these folks are governors or senators, there may come a time when these relationships are important.”
Battles to Come
If he wins reelection, Racine may expand his alternative public safety programs like ACE and build on his consumer protection achievements, including providing “a layer of protection for senior citizens,” borrowing ideas from places like Kansas and Georgia. He has pledged to be “more emphatic” about the need to have the OAG take on more of the local prosecutorial role. “We really want to get to a place where we are talking about transferring more criminal attorneys to the Office of the Attorney General. That’s what residents in DC want. They don’t want a third party who doesn’t answer to them to be their local prosecutor,” added Racine.
Mark Tuohey, head of the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel (MOLC), said the OAG should forget about that. “In this current climate that is going nowhere.”
The biggest challenge awaiting Racine could be the one he faced during the early months of his tenure: a turf scrimmage with Mayor Muriel Bowser.
When the Council debated creating an independent AG, then Mayor Vincent Gray and his appointed attorney general, Irv Nathan, persuaded the legislature to establish a new legal office under the executive. The MOLC would have oversight of all the general counsels in agencies under the executive’s control. There was some fear that the new attorney general either would not be competent or might be overly political. The move to handicap the incoming attorney general was seen also as an attempt to protect mayoral territory.
Gray didn’t win reelection. The benefit of his executive branch restructuring and maneuvering inured to his successor. Bowser pushed not only to solidify the powers of the MOLC but to snatch additional authority. Racine fought her efforts, although he did not persuade the Council to repeal the legislation creating the MOLC.
Tuohey acknowledged the early tension. “We didn’t dance around it. We talked to each other.” He credited Council Chair Pro Tempore Kenyan McDuffie, then chair of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, with helping to resolve the conflict. “We worked it out.”
After four years, there is recognition problems still exist. “In this new structure, there are levels of decision-making that need to be resolved. There has been talk about tinkering with the structure,” said Tuohey. Mendelson agreed the legislation should be revisited.
“The OAG should be the office from which all of the city’s lawyers except those lawyers who work for independent agencies report,” said Racine. “The current situation, where we have the general counsels of agencies reporting to agency heads then having the MOLC navigate that, is not ideal.” Further, “those lawyers don’t get the day-to-day supervision, training and other benefits that come from interacting with a full-fledged law office.”
Some people predict the attorney general won’t win the rematch. Unlike 2015, however, Racine now has a record; he has a potential army of residents, including low-income tenants, young adults rescued from the criminal justice system, senior citizens and homeowners, who have benefited from his work. Any bets on how many of them would be willing to stand with him in battle?
Jonetta Rose Barras is producer and host of “TheBarrasReport,” aired on UDC-TV, a 24-hour educational cable program service.