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Adventures in a bureaucratic wonderland.

Lawyers Paul Newman and David Gilbert aren't exactly household names (unlike their respective namesakes, the actor and the Weather Underground leader), but they were two of the most senior and esteemed attorneys in the federally funded Legal Services program. For several years, they ran regional offices, Newman in Boston and Gilbert in Denver. Last August, however, they were summarily fired for "gross insubordination." Those firings present an interesting tale, at least for those with a taste for the Kafkaesque.

Because the firings had the smell of a political witch hunt--Newman and Gilbert had made no secret of their lack of enthusiasm for the Administration's attempts to shut down the program--a Congressional oversight committee sought explanations. Donald Bogard and Gene Potack, who directs Legal Services Corporation (L.S.C.) field operations, came armed with a fat notebook filled with what they called documentation. It turned out to be a record of the L.S.C.'s irrationality.

Potack testified that Newman was fired because he had publicly criticized him on five occasions. On one occasion, Potack said, Newman had written a letter to staff lawyers in the field instructing them to obey new orders from Washington. What was wrong with that, inquired Representative Bruce Morrison. "Well, that was probably not very serious," Potack allowed, explaining that Newman's offenses had to be viewed as a whole.

The other incidents, however, were equally insignificant. Potack insisted that in allowing lawyers from the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (M.L.R.I.) to use Boston regional headquarters as a temporary office, Newman had admitted the "enemy" inside the gates. M.L.R.I. was suing Legal Services to restore some of its funding, Potack explained, and he feared that the corporation's secret files would be plundered and used in the litigation.

Actually, the institute had been allocated emergency office space because the premises it occupied had burned down, well before the litigation with Washington commenced. Moreover, the lawsuit, which turned out to be successful, concerned points of law, not disputes of fact; hence, there were no secrets in the Legal Services files for M.L.R.I.'s lawyers to plunder, even if they had had a mind to do so.

There was more. Gilbert was assailed for "parachuting" into Laredo, Colorado, without permission from Washington, to investigate charges that the Legal Services group there had been negligent in its treatment of clients. "Why wasn't [the negligence] in their monitoring report?" Potack demanded, prompting Colorado Representative Patricia Schroeder, who may have read Alice in Wonderland as preparation for the session, to ask how Gilbert could have monitored anything at a place he was told he shouldn't visit.

Newman was then charged with responding to a request for information from the Massachusetts Bar Association; apparently only the Washington office is allowed to talk to other lawyers. Also, Newman's deputy had appraised a prospective judicial candidate, in a confidential letter which had been solicited by a local review panel and approved by Newman. Potack called that engaging in an illegal "partisan political activity," though others would have considered it a service to the profession and to the public which every lawyer should perform.

In a confrontation at the Boston airport a few days before the hearing, Potack accused Newman of talking with Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank. What's objectionable about that? Frank inquired at the committee session. "Am I in the bar association category or am I a more neutral association?" Wisely, Potack ducked that one.

That was the sum of the L.S.C.'s case against Gilbert and Newman, Washington's "best shot," as one representative noted. The accusations were so trivial--indeed, they showed that the two field attorneys had some initiative--that Barney Frank, thinking in a literary vein, asked the witnesses, "You didn't accuse them of eating your strawberries?"

The actions of Bogard and his aide-de-camp showed clearly that they tolerate only strict party-liners who take their marching orders from Washington, down to the last "About face." Representative Schroeder observed, "I kept thinking, Do they have to call and ask if they can eat breakfast?"

The saga of David Gilbert and Paul Newman is not a singular tale about bureaucracy gone bersek; it is of a piece with the Reagan Administration's continuing campaign to demolish or demoralize Legal Services. Unable to persuade Congress to eliminate the program, the White House has done what it can to harass the program to death.

The Legal Services Corporation has been managed by a succession of boards packed with Reagan loyalists, nearly forty of them in all, who have shown less concern for the poor than James Watt displayed for the Big Sur coastal shelf. Not one of them has received Congressional confirmation. Bogard knew nothing about poverty law before taking the job; his only previous experience with Legal Services came when, as the attorney for a large Indiana food processor, he defended the company against a suit brought by a local poverty lawyer.

In its effort to sabotage the L.S.C., the board has convened in out-of-the-way places to duck its critics (one session was held during a blizzard in Window Rock, Arizona), adopted draconian client eligibility rules and curtailed class action suits and lobbying on behalf of the poor. Last fall, it proposed devastating its backup centers, which have shaped the direction of poverty law for two decades by providing research and developing litigation strategy, while handing out $330,000 to a Virginia-based law center avowedly committed to the abolition of the poverty law program.

Seen in this light, the sackings of Newman and Gilbert had a perverse logic. At the hearing, Representative Morrison commented that the corset of regulations and reprimands imposed by successive Reagan boards had choked off effective lawyering, and observed, "No person with any professional respect or ability would serve" in Legal Services. But that's the whole idea, isn't it?
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Title Annotation:problems at the Legal Services Corp.
Author:Kirp, David L.
Publication:The Nation
Date:Jan 26, 1985
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