Opinion

RACINE: An Independent AG with a Public-Interest Agenda

When District voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of converting the then-subordinate Office of the Attorney General (OAG) to an independent office, they made clear that the new OAG should act in the public interest for all D.C. residents. Since the Office of the Attorney General became independent in 2015, my hardworking colleagues and I have attended well over 200 community meetings. Regardless of neighborhood, we have heard a consistent message: District residents want an equitable and just city. That includes having a competent, transparent, ethical and fair government that works for everyone; it means workers getting paid for an honest day’s work so they can support their families; and it requires protecting our city’s most vulnerable consumers from predatory businesses.

With that mandate in mind, we are advocating that the Council pass several bills when they return from their summer recess on September 20.

Government Ethics and Transparency: District residents are sick and tired of public corruption and the appearance of impropriety. That’s why we introduced the Campaign Finance Transparency and Accountability Amendment Act of 2016. This bill would strengthen three major pillars of the District’s campaign-finance law: 1) ending pay-to-play politics; 2) making political donations transparent, and 3) creating a “bright line” between candidates and PACs. Under current law, donors to D.C. political campaigns can receive significant financial benefits from the District government. Our bill prevents anyone — including corporations — from engaging in major business with the District government for two years after donating to a District political campaign or PAC. This prohibition would preclude campaign donors from receiving large business contracts, major grants, or significant tax breaks from the District. Beyond this proposed legislation, we welcome and support further discussion around creating a public financing system that would seek to get money out of politics.

Protecting Workers: With a booming economy bringing more jobs to the District, we must protect our workers from “wage theft,” or the practice of denying workers their rightful pay. A 2014 report by the D.C. Employment Justice Center noted that, on average, each low-wage worker loses $51 per week to wage theft, or $2,634 per year. That amounts to 15 percent of their annual income. Wage theft also reduces the District’s tax revenues.

To address this issue, we introduced the Wage Enforcement Initiative Amendment Act of 2016. This bill will allow OAG to bring direct suit in Superior Court against businesses that show a pattern and practice of wage theft. Our office has received numerous complaints of flagrant and repeated violations by certain businesses, but we currently have limited authority to enforce our wage-theft laws — making it easier for unscrupulous employers to cheat workers. It is vital that OAG gain the authority to pursue wage-theft claims, at the highest levels, to deter wrongdoers and raise industry standards.

Protecting Consumers: Last year, OAG formed an Office of Consumer Protection charged with zealously pursuing litigation, outreach and education to protect consumers. Through this office’s work, we have identified multiple areas where our laws need strengthening. One legislative fix we have already introduced is the Immigration Services Protection Act of 2016. This legislation combats “notario” fraud, which targets immigrants. In Latin American countries, “notarios publicos” translates to “notaries public,” and they often can practice certain matters of law. In the United States, however, dishonest immigration consultants will mislead consumers by using the terms “notarios” or “notarios publicos” to imply they are lawyers when, in fact, they are not able to practice law. Many non-citizens will pay a notario fraudster for services they are not qualified to provide. As a result, many immigrants find out that they will never obtain a green card, legal immigration status, or other benefits. This bill, which grew out of the work our office does with the Council for Court Excellence and the Hispanic Bar Association of D.C., would give us the tools to prevent such fraud.

Our office will continue to take our public-interest mandate seriously, working with the Council on issues like debt collection, housing and juvenile justice. Our legislation is often informed by our litigation work. For example, OAG’s work to stop slumlords in Congress Heights led to us working with Council member Bonds on her Rental Housing Accommodation Nuisance Abatement Amendment Act of 2016. Passage of this bill would bolster the District’s ability to protect affordable housing. Similarly, while we will continue to prosecute serious violent offenders, we will pursue evidence-based reforms to our juvenile-justice system.

In the remainder of this Council period, the proposals listed above need urgent attention. Since OAG became independent, the Council and Executive have been strong and supportive partners. I urge their action on these bills so that we can continue to create a more inclusive, vibrant city.

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Karl A. Racine

D.C. Attorney General

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