WASHINGTON — He thinks of himself as a conservative Ralph Nader and terms his nonprofit organization the American Civil Liberties Union of the right.
Administration officials prefer to ignore him. But his propensity for taking them to court often means they can't.
Washington lawyer Larry Klayman, founder of the group Judicial Watch, is all the more troublesome to President Clinton and other foes because he is seemingly undeterred by either criticism or setbacks.
Although given to making exaggerated claims, Klayman hits pay dirt from time to time with so-called public interest lawsuits he files in federal court. Recently, in a 3-year-old civil suit Judicial Watch filed against the Commerce Department, he extracted a sworn statement from an associate of the late Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown that lends support to charges Brown used overseas trade missions to solicit Democratic campaign donations from companies on the trips.
Nolanda B. Hill, Brown's associate and onetime business partner, swore that Brown told her repeatedly before his death two years ago about White House pressure to give seats on the missions to companies willing to donate to Democrats. Her testimony flies in the face of long denials by the administration.
Allison Giles, a Justice Department attorney who has taken on Klayman, calls him "argumentative and snide." Others say he wants only to embarrass a Democratic administration.
Klayman--erudite, well-traveled and fluent in French and Italian--insists that it's only coincidental Clinton was president when he organized Judicial Watch in 1994. A former antitrust division lawyer at Justice, he believes that any administration should be "honest and free from the influence of big money," and insists that he is not targeting Democrats.
Still, he admits that he's had a heyday with the ethical problems plaguing the Clinton White House.
Judicial Watch did not begin with a bang. Its first lawsuit was aimed at the legal defense fund formed for Clinton after Paula Corbin Jones sued him for sexual harassment. Klayman's group contended that any contributions would violate the federal ban on gratuities being paid to a public official. But a judge dismissed it on grounds no money was going directly to Clinton.
As is his wont, Klayman claims at least partial success, despite the ruling. "The effort was successful in scaring off donors" to the legal fund, he said.
Klayman, 46, runs his tax-exempt group from the Washington offices of a small international trade law firm he heads. According to Judicial Watch's latest public filing with the Internal Revenue Service, most of its annual $68,000 budget is provided by Klayman himself, with the rest coming from small donations from the public.
The organization is staffed by 30 volunteers--many of them lawyers--who are directed by Klayman. Active in conservative causes since his student days at Duke University, he said he has "pretty much given up international trade cases myself because they're a little too docile. I like the challenge of running up against the buzz saw and taking on big interests."
His Commerce Department lawsuit has gained him more notoriety than any of Judicial Watch's other 15 legal filings, all of which have targeted the administration. It was filed when the department resisted the group's Freedom of Information Act request for thousands of records on overseas trade missions.
Klayman's latest effort is a $90-million, invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against the White House for obtaining hundreds of FBI files on former GOP appointees.
Republican-led congressional committees gave up investigating that issue in 1996, convinced they could prove no deliberate wrongdoing on the part of Clinton aides, who called it a fiasco resulting from inexperienced management. But Klayman took it up as a civil case, and the legal proceedings sparked the type of brouhaha he seems to relish.
Former Clinton advisor James Carville, who was summoned by Klayman for a deposition in the files case, had publicly called him "a little twerp." Klayman, in turn, insisted on grilling both Carville and senior presidential aide Paul Begala about the remark.
Government lawyers objected, saying Klayman was trying to "harass and goad" the two witnesses. Their strongest objections, however, came when Klayman asked Begala, "Who is your priest?"
Klayman said he was "just getting back" at government lawyers over written questions they had submitted to his own clients--Republicans whose FBI files had been checked--who were claiming "emotional distress." Among the queries by the government lawyers were demands for the names of any doctors, psychologists, therapists, social workers or clergymen Klayman's clients had consulted over the last seven years.
"I get on people's nerves, there's no question about that," Klayman said. After a pause, he added: "It's like playing hockey and body-checking. If you're weak at heart, you shouldn't be doing this."
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Profile: Larry Klayman
* Born: July 20, 1951, in Philadelphia
* Education: Bachelor's degree, Duke University, 1974; law degree, Emory University, 1977.
* Private practice: Klayman & Associates, Washington. Specializing in international trade issues.
* Government service: Attorney in Justice Department's antitrust division, 1979-81.
* Personal: Married with one child.
* Quote: "You need watchdog groups of all persuasions to keep the government honest."