IN RE ABRAMS

Decision Date05 February 1997
Docket NumberNo. 91-BG-1518,91-BG-1518
Citation689 A.2d 6
PartiesIn re Elliott ABRAMS, Respondent, A Member of the Bar of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
CourtD.C. Court of Appeals

Charles J. Cooper, with whom William L. McGrath was on the brief, Washington, DC, for respondent.

Michael S. Frisch, Assistant Bar Counsel, with whom Leonard H. Becker, Bar Counsel, and Julia L. Porter, Assistant Bar Counsel, were on the brief, for the Office of Bar Counsel.

Before WAGNER, Chief Judge, and FERREN, TERRY, STEADMAN, SCHWELB, FARRELL, KING, RUIZ, and REID, Associate Judges.

SCHWELB, Associate Judge.

ON REHEARING EN BANC

This matter is before us on the recommendation of the Board on Professional Responsibility that Elliott Abrams, Esq., a member of our Bar, and formerly Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, be suspended from the practice of law in the District of Columbia for a period of one year. The Board concluded, on the basis of extensive evidentiary findings by the Hearing Committee, that Abrams had engaged in "dishonesty, deceit or misrepresentation" by giving false (but unsworn) testimony to three Congressional committees regarding the role of the United States government in what has become known as the Iran-Contra Affair.

Following Abrams' conviction, upon a plea of guilty, of criminal charges arising out of his Congressional testimony, President Bush granted him a full and unconditional pardon. Although Abrams conceded before the Board that the pardon did not preclude Bar Counselfrom maintaining this disciplinary proceeding, he now contends that the President's action blotted out not only his convictions but also the underlying conduct, and that Bar Counsel's charges must therefore be dismissed. A division of this court agreed with Abrams. In re Abrams, 662 A.2d 867 (D.C. 1995) (Abrams I).

We granted Bar Counsel's petition for rehearing en banc, In re Abrams, 674 A.2d 499 (D.C. 1996) (en banc) (Abrams II), and we now hold, in conformity with the virtually unanimous weight of authority, that although the presidential pardon set aside Abrams' convictions, as well as the consequences which the law attaches to those convictions, it could not and did not require the court to close its eyes to the fact that Abrams did what he did. "Whatever the theory of the law may be as to the effect of a pardon, it cannot work such moral changes as to warrant the assertion that a pardoned convict is just as reliable as one who has constantly maintained the character of a good citizen." State v. Hawkins, 44 Ohio St. 98, 5 N.E. 228, 237 (1886). Specifically, the pardon "did not efface the . . . want of professional honesty involved in the crime." People v. Gilmore, 214 Ill. 569, 73 N.E. 737, 737 (1905).

"No moral character qualification for Bar membership is more important than truthfulness and candor." In re Meyerson, 190 Md. 671, 59 A.2d 489, 496 (1948). An attorney is required to be a person of good moral character not only at the time of admission to the Bar, but also thereafter. In re Rouss, 221 N.Y. 81, 116 N.E. 782, 783 (1917) (Cardozo, C.J.). The pardon could not "reinvest [Abrams] with those qualities which are absolutely essential for an attorney at law to possess or rehabilitate him in the trust and confidence of the court." In re Lavine, 2 Cal.2d 324, 41 P.2d 161, 163 (1935) (citation omitted). Accordingly, we hold that this court's authority to impose professional discipline was not nullified by the presidential pardon.

Abrams contends, in the alternative, that the discipline recommended by the Board is too severe. As reflected in Part IV of this opinion and in the separate concurring opinions of Judge Schwelb, Judge King, and Judge Ruiz, four members of the five-judge majority of the en banc court would suspend Abrams from practice for at least six months. Because this sanction has not commanded a majority of the full court, however, we order that Abrams be publicly censured.

I. THE FACTS1

From 1981 to 1984, the United States openly provided military and other assistance to the Nicaraguan "Contras," who were attempting to overthrow the former Sandinista government of that Central American nation. In October 1984, Congress enacted the "Boland Amendment," Pub.L. No. 98-473, 98 Stat. 1837, 1935 (1984), which prohibited the furnishing of further assistance to the rebels. The Reagan administration, however, remained sympathetic to the Contra cause. As Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, Elliott Abrams was often the administration's spokesman on issues relating to United States policy in Central America.

On October 5, 1986, an American aircraft which was carrying supplies to the Contras was shot down over Nicaragua. The downing of the plane, and the capture of its pilot, led to public allegations that notwithstanding the Boland Amendment, the government was continuing to arm and otherwise assist the Contras. As a result, Abrams was called to appear before several Congressional committees to explain the government's position.

On October 10, 1986, Abrams testified as follows before the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations:

In the last two years, since Congress cut off support to the resistance, this supply system has kept them alive. It is not our supply system. It is one that grew up after we were forbidden from supplyingthe resistance, and we have been kind of careful not to get closely involved with it and to stay away from it. . . .

I think that people who are supplying the Contras believe that we generally approve of what they are doing — and they are right. We do generally approve of what they are doing, because they are keeping the Contras alive while Congress makes its decision, which each House has separately, though obviously final legislation is not yet ready.

So, the notion that we are generally in favor of people helping the Contras is correct.

We do not encourage people to do this. We don't round up people, we don't write letters, we don't have conversations, we don't tell them to do this, we don't ask them to do it. But I think it is quite clear, from the attitude of the administration, the attitude of the administration is that these people are doing a very good thing, and if they think they are doing something that we like, then, in a general sense, they are right. But that is without any encouragement and coordination from us, other than a public speech by the President that kind of thing, on the public record.2

At the time Abrams so testified, he knew that Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North had engaged in conversations with people who were supplying the Contras, and that North had asked and encouraged these people to supply the Contras. Abrams concealed from the Senate Committee his knowledge of these conversations and of North's support for and coordination of the assistance being provided to the Contras.

Four days later, on October 14, 1986, Abrams gave the following testimony before the United States House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence:

[THE CHAIRMAN]: Do you know if any foreign government is helping to supply the Contras? There is a report in the L.A. paper, for example, that the Saudis are.

[MR. GEORGE]:3 No sir, we have no intelligence of that.

[MR. ABRAMS]: I can only speak on that question for the last fifteen months when I have been in this job, and that story about the Saudis to my knowledge is false. I personally cannot tell you about pre-1985, but in 1985-1986, when I have been around, no.

[THE CHAIRMAN]: Is it also false with respect to other governments as well?

[MR. ABRAMS]: Yes, it is also false.

(Emphasis in information.) In fact, Abrams had personally met with a representative of the Sultan of Brunei to solicit the Sultan's assistance, and he was aware that the Sultan had agreed to provide ten million dollars to the Contras. Abrams had also provided the Sultan's representative with a Swiss bank account number so that funds for the Contras could be deposited into that account.

On November 25, 1986, Abrams testified before the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Earlier on that day, Attorney General Edwin C. Meese had disclosed at a press conference that the proceeds of sales of arms to Iran had been diverted to the Contras. Abrams stated that

I was, until today, fairly confident that there was no foreign government contributing to this. But I knew nothing, still don't know anything, about the mechanisms by which money was transferred from private groups that have been raising it, to the Contras.

(Emphasis added.) Once again, Abrams concealed his knowledge regarding the Brunei solicitation, and he misled the Senate Committee with respect to contributions that had been made to the Contras by private organizations and by a foreign government.4

II. THE DISCIPLINARY PROCEEDING

On October 7, 1991, Abrams entered a plea of guilty to a two-count information charging violations of 2 U.S.C. § 192 (1985) (willful failure to answer questions pertinent to a Congressional inquiry).5 On November 15, 1991, Abrams was placed on probation for a term of two years and ordered to perform one hundred hours of community service.

Following Abrams' convictions, Bar Counsel charged him with three counts of "conduct involving dishonesty, deceit and misrepresentation," in violation of Disciplinary Rule 1-102(A)(4) of the former Code of Professional Responsibility. A hearing was held on December 21, 1992 before Hearing Committee No. 8, and the Committee took the case under advisement. On December 24, 1992, three days after that hearing, President Bush issued the full and unconditional pardon on which Abrams now relies.

On April 8, 1993, the Hearing Committee issued a comprehensive Report and Recommendation in which it found that Abrams had committed the charged violations. The Committee recommended that Abrams be suspended from practice...

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