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The Man Who Found John Roberts

The Return of Edwin Meese

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

"That bird is not honest that filleth his own nest."

John Skelton, Poems Against Garnesche

Mea culpa. All during the years in which John Ashcroft embarrassed the country by serving as attorney general, I told anyone who would listen that I waxed nostalgic for the halcyon days when Edwin Meese was attorney general. Poor memory permitted me to believe and say that the only offensive thing Edwin Meese did as attorney general was to cause taxpayers to pay $472,190 to help him prove he was an honest man and worthy of holding the office to which he acceded after an investigation into his pre-nomination conduct concluded he was not a crook, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.

The refreshing of my memory was compelled by the recent disclosure in the New York Times that Mr. Meese: "played a central role in strategy sessions with conservative leaders and representatives from the White House" in the nomination of Judge Roberts to succeed Sandra Day O’Connor on the United States Supreme Court. It also revealed that he was one of the architects of the so-called "nuclear option" proposal to block filibusters of judicial nominees by democrats. My refreshed review of his career extinguished my nostalgia.

Mr. Meese was nominated to become attorney general in January 1984 by the Ronald Reagan. He was not confirmed until February 23, 1985. The intervening months were not spent idly by him. They were devoted to proving himself an honest man. The task was made difficult because of his prior conduct.

Mr. Meese was one of Mr. Reagan’s most trusted advisors and instrumental in recommending and securing appointments to high level jobs for a number of people. After he was nominated it was learned that many of those whom he promoted had helped him in earlier days.

When Mr. Meese had to sell his house in California in order to move to Washington he was not a wealthy man. Thomas Barrack loaned a purchaser of Mr. Meese’s house $70,000 so he could buy the house. The buyer gave the $70,000 to Mr. Meese as a down payment. Thereafter, Mr. Barrack received a job as deputy under secretary of the Interior Department. Thereafter, Mr. Barrack forgave the $70,000 loan.

John McKean was Mr. Meese’s CPA. He loaned Mr. Meese $60,000. When asked about the loan Mr. Meese said he paid interest in a timely fashion. Subsequent investigation showed that to have been a lie. No interest was paid by him until after the reporter inquired. According to the General Accounting Office, the unpaid interest should have been reported by Mr. Meese as a gift.

Instead of foreclosing on Mr. Meese’s California house when Mr. Meese missed 15 consecutive loan payments, a California bank loaned him an additional $20,000 so he could bring his payments current. The bank’s president became an alternate delegate to the United Nations. Another bank officer became chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board.

Mr. Meese hired lawyers to prove to senators that he was an honest man. They worked at the task for 13 months and charged him $720,924. When the proof was in he was confirmed as attorney general. He asked a federal court to order the government to pay his legal bill under the 1978 Ethics in Government Act that permits a federal official investigated by a special prosecutor who is cleared to ask for reimbursement. It ordered taxpayers to pay $472,190 of the bill. His lawyers forgave the balance. He became attorney general and served for 3 years.

His departure, like his arrival, required a team of lawyers to prove he was a man of integrity. That is because in 1988, while serving as attorney general he was the subject of an investigation that sounds Halliburton-Cheney like. The charge was that he helped Bechtel, a defense contractor, get a defense contract in Iraq to install a pipeline. Mr. Meese was cleared of the charge but resigned shortly thereafter.

As attorney general Mr. Meese suggested that local school boards should be free to institute drug-testing programs for teachers seeking tenure. As he explained in a speech in Mississippi, "Drug testing has been upheld when applied to transportation workers. . . and it seems to me almost an insult to teachers to maintain that their jobs are any less important."

In 1986 he criticized a Supreme Court decision upholding the applicability of Brown v. Board of Education to the Little Rock public schools saying that the executive and legislative branches should follow their own view of the Constitution rather than always bowing to the view of the court.

One can only hope that Mr. Meese’s involvement in the selection of Judge Roberts says more about George Bush than it does about Judge Roberts. Mr. Bush’s past conduct gives little cause for sanguinity.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at: Brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu or through his website: http://hraos.com/