Channing D. Phillips is set to be the District’s new U.S. Attorney. (U.S. Department of Justice)
On Oct. 8, President Obama selected Channing D. Phillips, a former acting U.S. Attorney for the District and the senior counsel to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, as the city’s next top prosecutor. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) recommended Phillips to the president.
While Phillips will be taking on a largely non-political job, he will be expected to make a major decision on a leading former officeholder in the city.
Former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has been a leading target of an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office since early 2011 for his 2010 mayoral campaign’s violation of election laws. Several of his close associates have taken pleas from the U.S. Attorney’s office but Gray hasn’t been charged with any crime.
Ward 8 advisory neighborhood commissioner Mary Cuthbert, who has been involved in the city’s politics since the 1960s, didn’t mention Gray by name but said that Phillips needs to “close cases that are now open.”
“Those cases have been hanging on a string and they need to be closed,” Cuthbert said.
Leo Alexander, who ran against Gray in 2010 for mayor, agrees with Cuthbert. “Phillips needs to close the book on the Vince Gray investigation,” Alexander said. “The investigation is a mockery of justice and a waste of time. I am no big fan of Vince Gray but the city suffered under his leadership because of the investigation that hasn’t achieved its objective.”
Gray ran for re-election in 2014 but lost in the April 1 primary that year to present D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D). One of Gray’s opponents, D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), has publicly called for the U.S. Attorney’s office’s investigation of the former mayor to wrap up.
Cohen said that he wasn’t insensitive to the concerns of many District residents regarding the 2010 mayoral campaign investigation. “There are some important cases that I wish I could see through to their conclusions, but I have complete confidence in the team at the U.S. Attorney’s Office to follow through and do justice for the people of the District,” he said.
Johnny Barnes, a civil rights attorney in the District and the former executive director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital, agrees with the sentiment in the community that the Gray matter should be closed. “The former U.S. Attorney went beyond the role of the U.S. Attorney,” Barnes said. “I don’t think it is good to mix politics with law enforcement and the Gray matter is antiquated.”
Vincent Cohen Jr., the acting U.S. Attorney, will leave office on Oct. 18. Cohen held the position for only six months and prior to that worked under U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen for five years as the principal assistant U.S. Attorney.
The District’s U.S. Attorney’s office is largest in the country and deals with issues, as Cohen told the AFRO recently, from “Benghazi to Barry Farm.”
Phillips, a graduate of the University of Virginia and the Howard University School of Law, will have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate before he permanently assumes his post. He is a 16-year veteran of the U.S. Attorney’s office, starting in 1994 as an assistant U.S. Attorney and rising in the ranks to be the principal assistant U.S. Attorney from 2004-2009 and as the acting U.S. Attorney from May 2009-Febuary 2010. He has worked with the Justice Department in senior-level positions since 2011.
Phillips is a native Washingtonian and is the son of the late Rev. Channing E. Phillips, who was the first Black to have his name submitted for a major party presidential nomination in 1968 at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago.