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How Alberto Gonzalez Learned to Get You to Pay for His Legal Bills

Thanks A Lot, Mr. Meese

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

No one has ever accused them of being quick learners but when it comes to reaching into the taxpayers’ pockets you’d have thought they’d have tumbled to it more quickly than they did. I refer to Alberto Gonzales ’s legal fees. Thanks to the administration of Ronald Reagan, a precedent had already been set for determining who got to pay the legal fees of attorneys general believed to be of questionable character. In the case of Edwin Meese, the fees were incurred before he became attorney general and were incurred to prove he was not a crook and, therefore, qualified to be attorney general. The undertaking was not frivolous.

Following Mr. Reagan’s election, Mr. Meese helped Mr. Reagan select people to serve in the administration. 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.

A California bank did not begin foreclosure proceedings on Mr. Meese’s house even though Mr. Meese missed 15 consecutive payments of the mortgage. Instead, it loaned him $20,000 so he could bring his payments current. The president of the forgiving bank became an alternate delegate to the United Nations. Another officer at the bank was made Chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. These were just a few of the people who did Ed Meese favors who ended up with positions in the Reagan administration.

Some senators believed that the fact that friends who did Mr. Meese financial favors and ended up with presidential appointments suggested impropriety on Mr. Meese’s part. Such suspicions were absurd. It should have been obvious, for example, that the reason for placing the bank officer in charge of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board was so he could implement a policy whereby savings and loan institutions that were regulated by the board would be as liberal with other homeowners as his bank had been with Mr. Meese. Nonetheless, Congress insisted that Mr. Meese prove he was an honorable man. To that end Mr. Meese hired lawyers who proved his point. They charged $720,924 for their services and the taxpayers footed that bill.

There were those who thought it inappropriate to pay that kind of money to prove that a candidate for a high position in an administration was not a crook since there are plenty of people whose lives would speak for themselves and not require lawyers to speak for them. That, of course, overlooks the fact that if you are going to have people of the quality of Ed Meese in an administration, you are going to have to be willing to pay to prove they are men of integrity. And that brings us to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Mr. Gonzales follows in the footsteps of Ed Meese with one small difference. Although he engaged in improper conduct as White House counsel before being nominated as attorney general that conduct was not why he needed legal counsel. His troubles began after he left the post. It was then that an investigation was begun to determine whether Mr. Gonzales committed perjury when testifying before Congress or tampered with a Congressional witness. Unaware that he could permit the taxpayer to pay his legal fees in defending himself against these charges, his friends set up the Alberto R. Gonzales Legal Expense Trust to pay for his legal expenses and, to date, the taxpayer’s funds have not been implicated. In a more recent encounter with the need for legal representation, however, Mr. Gonzales has wised up.

A suit has been filed by eight law students alleging that he encouraged his subordinates to consider partisan politics when making hiring and firing decisions. If that occurred, it would be a violation of federal law. Instead of using justice department lawyers to defend himself Mr. Gonzales has retained private counsel to represent him. His counsel is, however, being paid by the federal government. Being more prudent than it was in Mr. Reagan’s day, the government did not write him or them a blank check. Mr. Gonzales’s lawyers can charge no more than $200 an hour and their monthly bills cannot exceed $24,000. Given these tight restraints on how much can be spent, the taxpayer can rest easy. It would take almost 3 years for Mr. Gonzales’s legal fees to be as great as those that were paid for Mr. Meese’s proceedings. And whenever we are tempted to feel bad about spending that much to prove a former attorney general is not a crook when all the facts would suggest otherwise, we can take solace in the fact that no matter how the suit comes out, he is no longer the attorney general and soon the man who appointed him will no longer be president. That alone is worth twice $720,924.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at: Brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu

Brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu