Updated 2:30 p.m.
The D.C. Attorney General's Office does not have authority to prosecute offenders of the city's false claims statute, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled today in a case that features a rare public dispute between local and federal prosecutors in Washington.
Federal prosecutors in Washington declined to file charges against Emerson Crawley, a former District public schools employee who is accused of false claims for allegedly receiving thousands of dollars in reimbursement for non-work dinners and entertainment. The D.C. Attorney General’s Office filed a 17-count information against Crawley in D.C. Superior Court. In June, The National Law Journal wrote about the spat here.
The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled today that local D.C. prosecutors do not have authority to prosecute Emerson, but the court declined to dismiss the information against him. The court instead said the trial judge should determine how next to proceed.
Crawley’s lawyer, Frederick Cooke Jr., a name partner in Washington's Rubin, Winston, Diercks, Harris & Cooke, said he was pleased with the appellate court ruling.
D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said the District is considering its options for further review of the ruling. "The Council should be allowed to give the District's chief law enforcement officer the authority to prosecute these cases," Nickles said. "To me this is a very important matter of principle. This is a local matter, a violation of District law, and it should be prosecuted by local prosecutors in the Office of the Attorney General."
A copy of the appellate opinion is here.
“Having answered the question certified to us by the trial court — that is, whether the Council validly assigned to the OAG the duty to prosecute violations of the false claims statute — we believe that the best approach is to allow the trial court to determine in the first instance what should happen next,” Judge Kathryn Oberly wrote in a footnote in the 26-page opinion.
The opinion explores the history of D.C. to some extent, detailing how the delegation of prosecution authority in the District evolved. The appeals court found that the D.C. Council does not have authority to delegate prosecution responsibility to the OAG for crimes that are not specified in a certain section of D.C. code. The false claims law is outside of that section. Lawyers for the District argued that when the council makes a new crime it can assign prosecution authority to the OAG.
At oral argument earlier this year, an assistant U.S. attorney, Roy McLeese III, argued that D.C. prosecutors had overstepped their authority. McLeese, for at least this moment, was on the side of defense counsel. He sat with Cooke at the same courtroom table. The D.C. Solicitor General, Todd Kim, argued for the Attorney General's Office.
Federal prosecutors and the OAG may consent to prosecution by the other for crimes in their respective jurisdictions. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia did not consent to allow local prosecutors to take the Crawley case. Federal prosecutors have not stated their reasons for declining to file charges against Crawley.