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Letter: Misleading Implications

To the Editor:

I write in my personal capacity only. I was surprised and disappointed by the Gazette Packet's front-page story [“Conflict of Interest,” Oct. 24] concerning the city's internal and external legal counsel. It was replete with inaccuracies.

First, the story was misleading as to the overall context. McGuireWoods LLP is the largest law firm based in Virginia. The Alexandria City Attorney's office is a small office, many of whose lawyers are devoted exclusively to certain child-protection, family law, juvenile, and related matters that are statutory service obligations. Like numerous other Virginia cities and counties, Alexandria engages outside legal counsel for high-risk financial matters, for selected specialized and unusual litigation matters, and for issues that are outside the scope of a locality's internal counsel's regular work. McGuireWoods is engaged by a number of other Virginia localities. Alexandria's practices are fully consistent with those of peer localities.

Second, the city's engagement of McGuireWoods long predates the arrival of City Attorney Jim Banks. McGuireWoods has worked on a number of other public finance, conduit bond finance, and other matters for the city that long preceded — by a factor of years — the appointment of Jim Banks.

Third, the story's implication that Jim Banks has some sort of implied financial or other interest in McGuireWoods is not only baseless but bizarre. Like most large law firms, McGuireWoods is established as a partnership, and persons not actually practicing law as part of that partnership typically cannot — for reasons ranging from tax liability, to insurance coverage, to equitable distribution entitlements — hold equity interests in the partnership. A lawyer who retired or withdraws from a partnership must typically sever any such interest as of the effective date of the withdrawal.

Fourth, it was wildly misleading for the story to quote a former assistant city attorney as a source without noting that the former assistant is also the former officer of the Old Town Civic Association, was OTCA's vice president during much of the underlying waterfront litigation, and may herself have some interest in the outcome of the disputes that are central to the story. Quoting the former assistant without even bothering to mention her direct involvement in relevant matters falsely made the former assistant appear to be some sort of neutral lawyer, which is not a reasonable opinion — or a reasonable news report.

Fifth, as the Gazette knew or could have determined, a conflict waiver itself is often confidential, and Jim Banks owes it to the city to do precisely as he did and decline to release that document.

The Gazette Packet is an essential local news outlet. Its work on this story fell far short of its role in the civic life of Alexandria, and cast an unfair and editorial light on a well-known law firm and a superb city attorney.

Mark C. Williams

Alexandria