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DISPLEASURE ISLAND : Useful Friends : Former Interior Secretary William P. Clark Jr. says he's not representing Francis Gherini in his friend's legal row.

May 24, 1990|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five years after leaving the post of U.S. secretary of the interior, William P. Clark Jr. is again working on department business--but now he's helping an old friend fight for more money in a real estate deal with Clark's old agency.

Clark maintains that he has not taken an advocate's position in the talks, instead acting as a "friend of the court" in Oxnard attorney Francis Gherini's negotiations with the National Park Service over a 6,264-acre property on Santa Cruz Island. Once the Park Service acquires it, the property will become part of Channel Islands National Park.

No one has challenged the legality of Clark's actions, but several public and private officials see Clark as a key player on Gherini's side in the talks. And that, environmentalists say, puts Clark among the several former Reagan Administration officials to make use of their previous offices in "revolving door" arrangements with private interests.

"There is a regular revolving door between the former secretary of the interior and developers. It's the all-too-frequent pattern that has emerged," said Bruce Hamilton, the Sierra Club's San Francisco-based director of conservation field services.

Noting the business interests of other former interior secretaries, including James Watt's work with a development project in Montana, Hamilton said he was dismayed by Clark's role in the Gherini Ranch talks, but not surprised.

In the federal bureaucracy, the National Park Service falls within the Department of the Interior, which Clark headed from 1983 to 1985.

Clark now spends much of his time at his ranch in Paso Robles and works as an attorney associated with the firm Rogers & Welk. He traces his friendship with Gherini to 1958, when they shared a law office on A Street in Oxnard.

"I try not to take an advocacy position among friends," Clark told The Times earlier this month. "Not only have the Gherinis been colleagues and friends for generations, but the National Park Service is a friend as well."

In that conversation, Clark said he was not representing Gherini in connection with the island.

But Ed Haberlin, chief of the division of land resources for the National Park Service's Western region, said he has met personally with Clark in San Francisco to discuss Gherini's position on the property. And Gherini and his attorneys have told a Santa Barbara Superior Court twice since April 24 that Clark has represented him in talks with the Park Service.

In a document filed April 24, Gherini and attorney Robert Bruce England noted that in late September, 1989, Gherini "employed the Honorable William P. Clark Jr. to represent respondent in negotiations with the National Park Service" over the Santa Cruz property.

And in testimony April 30, England told the court that Gherini "is presently conducting his negotiations through Justice Clark for the sale of his quarter interest."

Clark's response: "You asked if I was representing Francis as attorney, and the answer is no. I have had a couple of phone conversations."

Clark said that when he was in San Francisco last year he sat down with Haberlin and Gherini as what the two "have characterized as a friend of the court, which is a role I have played for friends. But that is not a legal representation--no fee, for instance."

Others involved in the talks, however, said that distinction has not been clear.

Haberlin said he had understood that Clark was acting as Gherini's representative in negotiations.

Channel Islands National Park Supt. C. Mack Shaver, said Clark's name "comes up every time we talk to someone in Washington" about the island.

And U.S. Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino, R-Ventura, said "it's a well-known fact that Clark has some interest for Francis Gherini." Lagomarsino added that he saw no impropriety in that.

Federal conflict-of-interest laws bar former senior executive branch officials from any contacts with their former agencies within one year of their departure.

Those laws, said U.S. Department of Justice spokesman Doug Tillett, also bar officials from ever representing any other person or company before the federal government on any matter involving specific parties with whom they were personally involved during their government tenure.

A June 18, 1984, "Dear Bill" letter to the interior secretary from Francis Gherini suggests that the Gherini family tried to get Clark personally involved, requesting a meeting and raising concerns over federal estate taxes and federal appropriation plans. But John Gherini recalled that Clark "did nothing" in response to that letter, and the July 13, 1984, reply to Francis Gherini from Park Service Director Mary Lou Grier indicates that no meeting was arranged.

Clark said he has always been careful to avoid both conflict of interest and the appearance of one.

"He's a pleasant, unassuming fellow," said Haberlin of Clark, adding that the former interior secretary "was careful not to play those kinds of games. . . . He's never exercised any pressure or undue sway."

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