By RICHARD MEEHAN
The Cool Justice Report
Feb. 15, 2007
EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com
aka, The Appearance Of Impropriety
Attorneys are governed by something called the Code of Professional Responsibility. The code lays out clearly what the boundaries of ethical conduct are for members of the bar. It is taught to first year law students, and a special examination on ethics is given as part of the process leading to admission to practice law.
Paramount among the rules is that a lawyer must avoid even the appearance of impropriety. In other words, not only act ethically, but avoid anything that even appears to be unethical whether or not it really is unethical. Simple enough, right? Apparently not for certain members of the Bush administration.
The Associated Press carried a story this week about recently resigned Assistant Attorney General Sue Ellen Wooldridge. Woolridge is romantically involved with former Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles (currently under investigation in the Jack Abramoff corruption probe). No ethical issue there -- yet.
The love birds began dating when Griles was her boss at the department of the Interior. Wooldridge’s star was on the ascendancy and she ultimately became the department’s solicitor in 2004.
The AP reports that Griles and Wooldridge invested in a $980,000 vacation home on plush Kiawah Island in South Carolina together with Donald R. Duncan, vice president of ConocoPhillips. Duncan and Griles served together on President Bush’s early transition team. Good to see teammates staying close.
Well, here’s the problem. ConocoPhillips has been required to complete a half billon dollar environmental cleanup. Ms. Woolrdige was the senior environmental prosecuting attorney representing the government in the Conoco case. She apparently spearheaded a deal that allowed Conoco to delay the pollution cleanup, or at least is reported as having signed off on two proposed consent decrees that would give Conoco two to three more years to install certain pollution controls and complete a toxic remediation. The deal was struck nine months after Wooldridge, Duncan and Griles purchased the luxury digs!
I suppose Ms. Wooldridge will claim that her involvement was perfunctory, merely signing off on a deal brokered by minions in her department. She may also argue that they were merely proposed consent decrees, requiring independent approval at another level. Maybe so.
I’d love to see this fact pattern on the next ethics segment of the Bar Exam. Anyone who finds that Ms. Wooldridge’s conduct does not reflect not only the appearance of impropriety -- but also stinks like a bag of week old fish -- should bypass the practice of law and go directly to jail. I can’t imagine even one befuddled law student who would give her a pass on this one.
Even more amazing is that the Kiawah purchase was last April, well after the Abramoff probe rocked D.C. power circles. I don’t know how long ago Wooldridge took the Bar Exam. The ethics test may not have been given then; if it was I’d love to see her score. I wonder if she would have signed of on the deal if Conoco had turned one of Kiawah Island’s renowned golf courses into a toxic waste dump.
Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim’s corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy and is a Charter Fellow, American Academy of Trial Counsel. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV.
Andy Thibault, author of Law & Justice In Everyday Life and a private investigator, is an adjunct lecturer of English and a mentor in the MFA writing program at Western Connecticut State University. Thibault also serves as a consulting editor for the literary journal Connecticut Review. Website, www.andythibault.com and Blog, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com
Law & Justice In Everyday Life by Andy Thibault at Amazon.com
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