Summersgill reviews Corporation Counsel homophobia at Rigsby nomination hearing
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Testimony on Confirmation of Robert R. Rigsby
For Corporation Counsel, PR 13-671

Delivered before the Committee on Judiciary
District of Columbia Council

January 6, 2000

Mr. Brazil, Members of the Committee, and Fellow Citizens:

My name is Bob Summersgill. I am President of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, DC (GLAA), the oldest continuously active gay and lesbian rights organization in the country.

Over the past decade we have had a number of problems with the Office of the Corporation Counsel that we can only attribute to a deeply entrenched homophobia — and often incompetence — on the part of staff attorneys.

We were first alerted to the problem in the early Nineties when the Corporation Counsel responded to a suit brought by two men seeking to marry. We had no illusions about the case’s chances for success, and expected a brief detailing legislative intent and similar arguments.

However, we were unprepared for the naked hostility and gay-bashing in not one, but two briefs. Each liberally quoted select Biblical passages to condemn homosexuality and sought to severely restrict the application of the DC Human Rights Law. The briefs not only raise the unacceptable biases of the lawyers, but their competency to write a legal brief — instead of a religious tract — and defend the laws of the District.

The office’s long-standing homophobia was also shamelessly on display in the recently-decided case brought by Justen Bennett-Maccubbin against two DC police officers after he was arrested and kept handcuffed to his assailant in a November 1996 hate crime.

But perhaps the most egregious actions from the Corporation Counsel came in response to a wrongful death suit when transgendered citizen Tyra Hunter died on August 7, 1995, after discriminatory and negligent treatment by DC government employees following an auto accident.

Adrian Williams, the Fire Department employee providing treatment at the accident scene, discovered that she had male genitalia. He said, “This bitch ain’t no girl, it’s a nigger,” and laughed, joked, and withdrew emergency medical care from Tyra for 5 to 7 minutes.

This situation was confirmed by four witnesses and an EMS supervisor.

Williams and his actions, were defended by the city at tax-payer expense. This man disgraces the DC Fire Department, the City of Washington, DC and the citizens of the District. He was never disciplined.

The Fire Department conducted a sham investigation and never intended to hold anyone accountable for this disgraceful and degrading treatment of a gravely injured citizen.

The Corporation Counsel argued that Williams was exercising his first amendment right in ridiculing Tyra Hunter as she lay bleeding. GLAA succeeded in bringing this argument to then Corporation Counsel John Ferren’s attention, who instructed the trial attorney, Assistant Corporation Counsel Steven J. Anderson, to withdraw the argument in an amendment to the brief.

Additionally, Judge Ferren withdrew the City’s argument that the DC streets, not being a physical building, are not a “place of public accommodation” and therefore not subject to the DC Human Rights Law.

Anderson argued in court that Tyra was used to being called names, so she could not have been too upset at being taunted with insults by a DC employee as she lay bleeding in the street.

He also argued that citizens are not entitled to take the District to court for violations of the DC Human Rights Law.

The jury, fortunately, was not persuaded by any of these arguments, and awarded Margie Hunter $500,000 for civil rights violations, and an additional $2.4 million for medical malpractice.

The malpractice that killed Tyra at DC General was a long series of willful indifference that should have resulted in the revocation of the Doctor’s license. In addition to claiming she died of “head trauma” when the autopsy showed no head injury, x-rays disappeared, blood gas charts were whited-out, and the most basic of medical care was denied.

Nearly five years after she died, Tyra still has not received justice due to a challenge by the District’s attorneys to dismiss the jury award.

Mr. Rigsby has been serving as Acting Corporation Counsel for the last six months. Prior to his nomination for the permanent position on December 7, his office had done nothing towards fulfilling the Mayor’s explicit promise to the gay and lesbian community to settle the Hunter case.

Mayor Williams held a number of meetings on the Hunter case, was subjected to repeated community criticism, gave directions to the trial attorneys, and never once consulted with Mr. Rigsby as the acting Corporation Counsel.

The Mayor delayed the settlement process in the Hunter case to wait for the ruling that he — and everyone else — expects the city to lose. The city is not likely to be in a better bargaining position if it waits until after Judge Gardner’s ruling. Mr. Rigsby seems to be the first person at Corporation Counsel to see that point clearly. Now the Mayor’s office seems ready to defer to Mr. Rigsby on that point.

The fact that Mr. Rigsby did arrange a meeting with Margie Hunter’s attorney is a good start. We urge Mr. Rigsby to remain personally engaged in making every effort to reach a just conclusion on this case.

The size and nature of a settlement are not our concern. What we are concerned about, is that the District stop defending the indefensible.

Mr. Rigsby is the first District official, in a position to do anything about it, to admit that the city’s case has little merit and that those responsible for what happened to Tyra Hunter should be fired.

The deeply entrenched homophobia in the Corporation Counsel’s office must be confronted and rooted out once and for all. In that respect, Mr. Rigsby is a promising candidate.

Mr. Rigsby has started to fire lawyers who disgrace the District with their unprofessional behavior and incompetence. He has assured us that homophobic behavior will not be tolerated in the Office of Corporation Counsel.

Yet Steven Anderson, the trial attorney in the Hunter case is still employed as Assistant Corporation Counsel.

There is a need for staff attorneys who use homophobic or other bigoted arguments in their briefs or at trial to be fired. Such actions, by enforcing serious accountability, will do more than any amount of sensitivity training alone can do to change the egregious behavior coming out of that office.

After two rather pleasant meetings with Mr. Rigsby, we no longer object to his nomination. We are eager to continue working with Mr. Rigsby to resolve these matters and ensure that the Office of the Corporation Counsel understands the meaning of “justice for all.”

I will be happy to answer any questions that you may have.

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