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Ethics Panel Hearing : Wright Case Lawyers: Study in Contrasts

May 24, 1989|ROBERT L. JACKSON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In style, it was a contest between F. Lee Bailey and Elmer Gantry, between a hard-nosed, forceful defense lawyer and an arm-waving evangelist of a prosecutor.

Stephen D. Susman--in the Bailey role--argued the case Tuesday for House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) by following a tried-and-true litigator's rule: If the facts seem to be against you, argue the law. Without challenging the acts with which Wright has been charged, Susman insisted that House ethics rules simply do not apply to Wright's conduct.

But special committee counsel Richard J. Phelan, with the fiery oratory and flailing arms of an Elmer Gantry, indignantly argued that Wright had made a "sham" of House rules by obvious efforts to enrich himself at the expense of the people's well-being.

It was difficult to tell which approach proved more effective to the 12 members of the Ethics Committee, which earlier had found "probable cause" that Wright has violated House ethics rules 69 times.

Tuesday's hearing, the first such session to occur in public, was convened to give Wright's lawyers a chance to seek dismissal of the major charges--that he improperly accepted $145,000 in gifts from a business partner and that he evaded congressional limits on speaking fees by making bulk sales of his book to special-interest groups.

Susman and Phelan clearly addressed their arguments not only to the committee members before them but to the American public.

Susman, 48, an experienced Houston trial lawyer who recently was brought in to strengthen the Speaker's legal team, delivered his mostly legalistic arguments in a stolid, unemotional manner befitting his broad-shouldered, granite-block appearance.

He told his "jury" of 12 congressmen that "this is not his (Wright's) day in court--it's only an opportunity for his lawyer to argue some legal points."

"He is dying . . . for his day in court," Susman said at the outset. "I practically had to lock Jim in his office a few minutes ago, he wanted to be here so badly."

Phelan, 52, a veteran Chicago litigator, stuck with what he called "real facts" and derided Susman for indulging in "legalisms."

"Look at what was done here, not at some legalisms," he exhorted committee members. As the committee's special outside counsel, Phelan has spearheaded its investigation of the Speaker.

He said that Wright had made "an artifice, a sham" out of the absence in House rules of a limit on income from book royalties. And he asserted that the enormity of his gifts from his business partner, Texas developer George A. Mallick Jr., overwhelmed any effort by defense attorneys to draw "a fine line . . . in the sand."

Gifts Called Improper

Phelan swayed from side to side to show that being on one side of the line or the other was not a close question when more than $140,000 in gifts--including business loans and free use of a condominium and luxury automobile--was at issue. Phelan said the gifts were improper because Mallick, as a developer, had a "direct interest" in federal tax legislation.

Susman tried to make committee members walk in Wright's shoes. Before proceeding against the Speaker, he said, they should consider whether they have ever received a gift from a friend, for fear that friend might later have an interest in legislation that would make the gift illegal.

Such a friend, if a farmer, could be affected by agricultural legislation, he suggested. And a gift-giving college professor could benefit from educational legislation.

"Ninety percent of the people in this room--doctors, lawyers, reporters, businessmen--we all have some interest in legislation," he said.

But Phelan responded: "Most folks don't get gifts except from members of their families." His lips curling with sarcasm, he added: "To suggest that everybody in Congress has a friend like George Mallick is absolutely wrong . . . and demeaning to this institution."

Susman referred scornfully to Phelan's "moral righteousness and moral outrage."

"He knows better than to come here and argue the facts," Susman said, explaining that that phase will come later. "We need cool attention to the laws which this matter deserves."

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