Conservative group seeks to disbar Clinton Foundation files complaint based on Starr report

September 16, 1998|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

A conservative legal foundation filed a formal complaint in Arkansas yesterday seeking to have President Clinton disbarred as an attorney based on "overwhelming evidence" that he repeatedly lied to cover up sexual misconduct.

The Southeastern Legal Foundation of Atlanta -- long associated with such conservative causes as the fight to end affirmative action -- claims that evidence compiled in the Starr report released last week "reflect adversely on Mr. Clinton's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer."

The group, founded in 1976 and supported largely by donations from conservative action groups and individuals, is governed by a board of staunch Republican backers that includes Amos R. McMullian, who heads the parent company of Sunbeam Bread and who is a close ally of House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"We readily acknowledge that our organization is a conservative public interest group," said Matthew J. Glavin, foundation president. "But we didn't exactly expect the ACLU or Bill Clinton's friends in Arkansas to file a complaint, and somebody had to do it."

Glavin denied that the complaint was politically motivated, saying that it arose naturally with the filing of the Starr report since Arkansas law requires lawyers licensed in the state to report suspected misconduct by their peers.

L. Lynn Hogue, the foundation's chief counsel, is a member of the Arkansas Bar Association.

Jim Kennedy, a spokesman for the White House counsel's office, had no comment on the complaint, and said the counsel's office had not been notified of any proceeding by the Arkansas bar involving the president.

Glavin's contention was supported by legal experts, who said that even if Congress deems the allegations of lying by the president unworthy of impeachment proceedings, they may still jeopardize his law license.

Under the rules governing conduct by attorneys in Arkansas and most other states, Clinton can be disbarred based on "clear and convincing" evidence that he was dishonest, deceitful or engaged in conduct "prejudicial to the administration of justice."

"[The complaint] may not be his most pressing problem at the moment, but somewhere along the line this is going to be a serious matter for Bill Clinton," said Abraham Dash, an ethics professor at the University of Maryland Law School. "No matter what Congress decides, he will still face serious questions in Arkansas about his fitness to practice law.

"If any of the major allegations in the Starr report are proven, he is vulnerable to disbarment."

Charles Wolfram, interim dean of the Cornell University Law School and an expert on attorney ethics, agreed: "The charges are a grenade, whether or not they're proven by Congress. We have already heard the president on national television admit in his own words that he committed something very close to perjury. That alone would be enough to proceed against his law license."

"We routinely receive complaints based on nothing more than statements made in a newspaper clipping," said James A. Neal, executive director of the Arkansas Supreme Court Committee on Professional Conduct, the watchdog agency overseeing the state's lawyers. "We are duty bound to take them all seriously, and to conduct at least a preliminary investigation."

Neal said he is prohibited from confirming whether Clinton is under investigation for violations of Arkansas' attorney ethics rules.

"We tend to get caught up in the immediacy of the impeachment question," Wolfram said. "But the professional disgrace is going to haunt him for many years to come. It's the one thing Nixon regretted more than anything else, the loss of his license and standing as a lawyer."

Pub Date: 9/16/98

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