Interior Secretary James Watt may be in for trouble from the D.C. Bar over his reported efforts to blackball former Carter administration lawyers--that is, if the bar can get the leadership to join the fray and sign a letter of protest some members want to send to the controversial secretary.

In mid-January, Arnold & Porter lawyer and bar board member Dan Rezneck sent a letter to bar President Jim Bierbower with a clipping from the weekly Legal Times that detailed warnings from Interior Department officials to clients against hiring "politically undesirable" lawyers. Translation: They prefer Republicans.

The article said that in at least one case, a client switched lawyers as a result of the pressure. Energy and environmental attorneys concede that their pocketbooks and their pride have been hurt, the article said.

Rezneck said in his letter that he had no idea whether the charges were true but said he wanted the bar to look into them "so that the practice can be stopped."

Public Interest lawyer Alan Morrison and David Austern of Goldfarb, Singer & Austern, both members of the bar board, prepared a strongly worded, seven-page letter, complete with case citations, to Richard Mulberry, Interior's inspector general.

They said that political discrimination against lawyers--if true--would violate "common law and constitutional rights, the federal criminal code, the department's standard of conduct, and, to the extent that attorneys are involved, the Code of Professional Responsibility as well."

Bar board members, new to the debate and unfamiliar with the research, were reluctant to sign the letter. Instead, they agreed that Phil Lacovara at Hughes Hubbard & Reed should draft a more general letter expressing their concerns.

Bierbower told the board that the issue had to be viewed in its "historical context," namely, politics is politics.

So, Lacovara, getting the hint, included a line in his draft that said the bar was "aware the political influence had traditionally been useful in representing clients before government officials." Nevertheless, Lacovara said the bar wanted the inspector general to see if Watt and his staff had overstepped the line.

The letter now sits on Bierbower's desk. He says he won't sign it in the form it's in now. Bierbower won't say what's wrong with the letter, only that "I'm not a first draft man." Bierbower said "Nobody knows what Watt is doing and whether it is . . . new and different."

So for now, Watt is safe from the bar. In the meantime, Morrison and Austern got a terse response from the Interior Department. It said there will be no investigation because it might interfere with a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Interior filed in the U.S. District Court. That case involves a former Washington lobbyist who says he was fired after his boss got word--from a high aide to Watt--that he had asked the secretary to explain his remark that he divided the political world between "liberals and Americans."

Morrison and Austern, in yet another letter to Interior, said they were "unable to detect any similarity" between that lawsuit and their complaint, and they renewed their request for an investigation.