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Washington THE REAGAN administration has launched a vigorous new attack on local legal service agencies by dispatching teams of “investigators” to disrupt and harass programs. These teams are demanding copies of confidential client records. They raise questions about attorney participation in reapportionment cases. The investigators actually have held ex parte discussions with defendants in cases brought by the Legal Services Corporation “This is a witch hunt,” says Hulett Askew of the National Legal Aid and group that represents many of the local legal services programs. “It is an attempt to destroy the program and is based on the LSC’s legal responsibility to perform monitoring of the programs and to investigate complaints against them. It’s a police operation.” much praised under Carter, now is enmeshed in bureaucratic investigation. Over the last 18 months, TRLA has been subject to two investigations by the General Accounting Office of Congress, two IRS audits, two full-field investigations by the Corporation’s Office of Compliance and Review, one special investigation on voting rights, and, most recently, in August a full press “monitoring” visit by a 14-member team from the Denver regional office. That investigation was led by a former lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, and included a defendant in a TRLA suit. The monitors left behind an eight-page list of 20,000 documents they want Xeroxed, including five-year-old files they had discovered in a storeroom. The program already has submitted 6000 pages of documents to the LSC. Before these files can be sent, each must be read by an attorney to make sure its release does not breach client confidence, a task that TRLA, with only one administrative attorney, predicts will require at least a year and a half. In previous visits, LSC investigators James Ridgeway ‘s “Moving Target” is a regular feature of the Observer. told Texas Panhandle newspapers that the program was a “Frankenstein.” The LSC agents also claimed that the attorneys were destroying the business community, fomenting racial unrest, and disrupting church raffle sales, and also had become too cozy with labor unions. In Texas, a major focus of the investigation has been migrant labor advocacy. According to .sources within TRLA, federal investigators sought connections between the attorneys and the farm workers union, with the investigators arguing that representation of any farm labor organization was tantamount to encouraging unionization. IN NORTH CAROLINA, where the legal assistance program \(Legal Services of North Carolina, Incor state bar association, harassment began two years ago with the corporation’s investigation of complaints from growers passed on to them by conservative Republican Senators John East and Jesse Helms. Richard Taylor, who heads the state legal services program, says he received a letter citing the complaints and quoting extensively from ex parte interviews the corporation investigators had with defendants in pending federal litigation brought by Legal Services of North Carolina. “We were horrified,” Taylor recalled last week, “that Legal Service investigators would be speaking with people who are on opposite sides of cases in federal court from clients represented by the programs they funded.” In June of this year, Taylor heard that Legal Services investigators were asking questions about the program in the general assembly of the state legislature. “I went over there and found these two guys,” Taylor says. “They said they were investigating my program but would not have an opportunity to talk to me about it. I invited them to come to my office, but they refused to do so.” Soon thereafter, Taylor’s office received an official complaint that the program had been lobbying the state legislature. As it turned out, Ivan Mothershead, a freshman conservative member of the assembly from Charlotte, had initiated the complaint. At a banking committee hearing, he had expressed indignation at the presence of a state legal services lobbyist representing consumers. “I resent that,” Mothershead had declared. “Banks represent consumers.” Mothershead then phoned Bob Valois, vice-chairman of the LSC board, who is a partner of Tom Ellis, Jesse Helms’s political strategist in Raleigh. Valois then called the LSC in Washington and asked for an investigation. After the Mothershead incident, the state bar asked the American Bar Association to conduct its own investigation. A spokeswoman at the LSC said there would be no comment on the North Carolina situation because the investigation was still underway. In Maryland, the Legal Aid Bureau, which runs the state’s legal services program, received a letter July 11 announcing a monitoring visit ten days later. The visiting team wanted to investigate the migrant program, conduct a random review of cases, and talk to attorneys, paralegals, and other staff. The program, which employs 110 lawyers in 14 different offices, found it difficult to pull everyone together on such short notice. And, in any event, Charles Dorsey, the director, flatly refused to open client cases for inspection. “In this state the information we have on clients is confidential,” Dorsey says, “and we are prohibited by the code of professional responsibility from opening up that information without a release from them.” But the LSC team appeared anyway, and, after being turned away, the corporation announced that it was suspending Maryland’s funding. The bureau immediately filed suit in federal court and recently won a preliminary injunction barring suspension of its September check. Clifford Crook, corporation chief of staff, says, “Our position was that we had given them full and adequate notice of a monitoring visit which was due. They had totally denied us access. It was a lockout.” As for the possible disclosure of client records he added, “The statute says we are not to violate the attorney-client privilege. We felt that privilege was used in blanket fashion, and there are limits to that. But any problems could have been worked out by parties on the scene.” “In the beginning,” says the NLADA’s Askew, “we thought the situations in Maryland, .North Carolina, and Texas were isolated, and just aberrations. Now we’re beginning to see there is a pattern. It’s going on nationwide. There are at least a dozen programs that have objected to monitoring requests since July. Legal Services Witch Hunt By James Ridgeway THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11