Maine Lawyer Named Independent Counsel in Herman Case
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 27, 1998; Page A04
A prominent Maine trial lawyer was appointed yesterday as the independent counsel who will investigate allegations that Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman solicited illegal campaign contributions and engaged in influence peddling while a White House aide.
A special three-judge appeals panel named Ralph I. Lancaster Jr., 68, of Portland, to the post. Lancaster, who has no previous prosecutorial experience, is a past president of the American College of Trial Lawyers and was a member of an American Bar Association committee that judged the qualifications of controversial Supreme Court nominees Robert H. Bork and Clarence Thomas.
Attorney General Janet Reno asked for an outside prosecutor earlier this month. Reno said she did so because she was unable to dismiss the accusations made against Herman by African businessman Laurent J. Yene, who lodged the allegations after a bitter ending to a romantic and business relationship with a close friend of Herman's.
He alleged that Herman, while head of the White House Office of Public Liaison, agreed to accept 10 percent of any business she helped generate for a private venture owned by Yene and Herman friend Vanessa Weaver. He also alleged that Herman told Weaver to seek donations for the Democratic Party from a Singapore businessman who wanted to secure help on a federal license for a satellite phone network and paid Weaver's business $250,000.
The appeals court judges who made the appointment -- David B. Sentelle of Washington, John D. Butzner Jr. of Richmond and Peter T. Fay of Miami -- detailed Lancaster's jurisdiction in a three-page order yesterday. It calls for Lancaster to determine whether Herman "held an undisclosed financial interest in International Investments and Business Development (IBD), and whether Secretary Herman participated in the solicitation of illegal campaign contributions through Vanessa Weaver."
Lancaster, who was sworn in by Sentelle yesterday, is the seventh independent counsel to be called upon to investigate alleged wrongdoing in the Clinton administration and the second to be appointed within the past three months. The same appellate panel in March named Washington attorney Carol Elder Bruce to investigate allegations concerning Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's role in the rejection of a proposed Indian gambling casino.
Lancaster did not return a reporter's call yesterday. Bruce A. Coggeshall, managing partner of his law firm, said Lancaster is taking a leave from the practice and plans to open an office in Washington. "He is committed to doing this full time," Coggeshall said. "He is excited about this, and we're excited and very proud."
Herman's attorney, W. Neil Eggleston, made an unusual, but unsuccessful, challenge to Reno's petition seeking the appointment, arguing to the three-judge panel that Reno did not meet the test "that there was a fair probability or substantial chance that the subject engaged in some criminal activity." Yesterday, Eggleston said only: "Secretary Herman is pleased that this appointment was made so quickly and is looking forward to working with Mr. Lancaster to bring the investigation to a close."
Herman and Weaver have denied Yene's allegations, and Weaver's attorney, E. Lawrence Barcella Jr. called Yene a liar who tried to extort money from his client. Reno aides indicated the strictures of the independent counsel law, not the evidence against Herman, led the attorney general to seek Lancaster's appointment.
Coggeshall said Lancaster has "not been active in politics." Federal election records show he has made donations to several Republicans, including Maine Sens. Olympia J. Snowe, Susan Collins and William S. Cohen, now the secretary of defense. He also contributed to then-Democratic Sen. George J. Mitchell.
Lancaster, who is married and the father of six, resigned from the ABA in 1992 in protest to its stand endorsing abortion rights. "That issue is so controversial that it should not be part of the ABA's agenda," he said at the time.
A graduate of College of the Holy Cross and Harvard Law School, Lancaster has spent nearly 40 years with Pierce Atwood, Maine's largest law firm. He has been a partner since 1961, handling a mix of civil and criminal litigation in state and federal courts. In 1984, he represented the United States in a boundary dispute before the International Court of Justice. During the late 1980s, Lancaster was named by the Supreme Court to act as special master in a dispute between the states of New Jersey and Nevada over storage of nuclear waste.
Judah Best, a Washington attorney who served with Lancaster on the ABA panel reviewing Supreme Court nominees, said yesterday, "I admire him greatly and think he's a wonderful person."
Jack Curtin, a Boston lawyer who named Lancaster to chair the judicial committee when Curtin was president of the ABA, said: "He is as fair and competent attorney as anyone I know. You couldn't ask for anyone better qualified to handle investigations and to be fair and prompt."
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