Jan Baran has landed in a very high-profile pickle in the past several weeks.
Baran is the Washington attorney who, until last month, represented Newt Gingrich in the House ethics committee investigation into whether the speaker had misused tax-deductible donations to finance his college course. In response to the allegations, Gingrich sent two letters to the committee in which he denied that GOPAC, a political action committee with which he is closely associated, was involved in funding the course or that the course was intended to forward the speaker's political career.
Those statements were later deemed inaccurate by the committee's special counsel and quickly became some of the most damaging pieces of evidence in the case against Gingrich. Though he signed the letters, the speaker distanced himself from them by arguing that he had not read them closely, and blamed his lawyer and staffers for the mistakes.
On Dec. 14, as a rift developed between the two men, Baran announced that he was dropping Gingrich as a client and shifted responsibility for the mistakes back to the speaker. "I wish to make clear that my firm did not submit any material information to the ethics committee without Mr. Gingrich's prior review and approval," he said.
According to lawyers familiar with the case, this sequence of events has left Baran in a predicament: Does he allow his former client to continue suggesting that lousy legal advice contributed to the speaker's ethics problems with Congress, which led last week to a reprimand and a $300,000 penalty? Or does he defend his reputation and thereby contradict the nation's highest-ranking Republican?
For now, Baran (his name is pronounced Yahn Bar-ron) remains stoically silent on the subject. In an interview about his career and life last week, the soft-spoken 48-year-old would not comment on any aspect of his relationship with Gingrich, and did not even hint at how he would handle the delicate matter of what comes next in the ongoing Gingrich saga.
"The attorney-client relationship is a very special one," he said.
In his two decades in Washington, Baran has been a something of a pioneer in his chosen field, election and campaign finance law. He has argued for fewer limits on campaign spending before the Supreme Court -- spurring Common Cause magazine to label him the "Darth Vader of campaign finance law" -- and signed up dozens of top Republicans looking for campaign finance advice, including George Bush, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and former Tennessee senator Howard Baker.
Now, fellow attorneys said, Baran is trapped in a classic Washington corner. Politicians in trouble invariably hire the finest legal talent they can find, but when investigators and prosecutors begin pouncing, embattled clients frequently attempt to blame counsel for their troubles. For instance, Dan Rostenkowski, the former Democratic congressman who was once the powerful head of the Ways and Means Committee, fired two lawyers before being jailed last year on corruption charges.
"That's just how it happens," said Stan Brand, one of the attorneys Rostenkowski sacked. "The lawyers in these cases get some of the radioactive fallout, no matter what."
For Baran, neither continued quiet nor public sparring is a palatable option, according to legal experts and other lawyers. As an attorney widely regarded as the GOP's man to see on election and campaign finance law, Baran has many Republican politicians for clients -- people who might be chagrined to see him airing his differences with one of the party's most powerful members. Then again, staying muzzled while someone intimates that you are incompetent could not be very appealing -- or good for business.
Sitting in his dimly lit office overlooking K Street, Baran seems too reserved and serene to have worked for a self-described revolutionary such as Newt Gingrich. His voice can barely be heard over a hissing radiator, and he speaks with both formality and geniality, like an ambassador trying to be friendly while carefully measuring his words.
His path to prominence has been profoundly unconventional. Baran's father was a Catholic mayor in a Polish town who was arrested during World War II by Nazi Gestapo agents. The charge: refusing to turn in his rifle.
"They would have shot him on the spot if they found the gun, but they didn't -- so they shipped him off to Auschwitz," Baran said.
Surviving that ordeal, Baran's father moved the family to a Polish neighborhood in Chicago in 1951, when Jan was 3 years old. Baran graduated from Ohio Wesleyan and won a scholarship to Vanderbilt Law School in Tennessee. There he became enamored with the Republican Party -- Democrats then were the segregationists in the state and weren't fiscally conservative enough for Baran -- and started managing GOP campaigns.
After arriving in Washington in 1974, Baran held several jobs running restaurants, largely because Watergate had vastly curtailed the demand for Republican lawyers. But the scandal spurred a series of campaign finance reforms, including the Federal Election Campaign Act, and suddenly campaigns were becoming as highly regulated as any industry.
So the GOP began looking for attorneys to help them navigate the tangle of new laws. Because the field was so new, a young attorney could be as expert at it as a seasoned veteran.
"I got a call from the new chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, an organization which had been around for 110 years but had never had an outside counsel," Baran said. "They had concluded that they needed a full-time lawyer as a result of post-Watergate reforms, and they figured I had some political experience and would understand the laws' application."
Baran worked for the Federal Election Commission for several years and then moved into private practice in 1979, quickly becoming the hottest Republican lawyer in this practice area. He now is a partner at Wiley Rein & Fielding in Washington and has 100 clients, nearly all of them Republican politicians or corporations in need of counsel on campaign finance.
Though Baran became Gingrich's full-time lawyer in 1994, the two actually met 20 years ago, just after the Georgian had lost his second bid for a House seat.
"He was exactly the same as he is today," Baran said. "Very animated, forward-looking, curious about many things and very confident that he could change the Republican Party, if not the world."
Since 1994, Baran has helped Gingrich weather, by his count, "eight formal complaints from everyone from congressmen to Ralph Nader and 76 different allegations of wrongdoing." All but two of those allegations have been dismissed, he points out proudly. Baran thus far has appeared less than eager to openly spar with his former client. In testimony before the ethics committee in November, the lawyer was asked if Gingrich had asked him to provide misleading information. "Absolutely not, though I hesitate to use the word absolutely," Baran said, a memorable hedge.
Gingrich, on the other hand, has signaled that he might be contemplating a malpractice case against Baran. The speaker hired J. Randolph Evans, a malpractice lawyer, as a replacement for Baran. He also began telling House colleagues that he would consider suing his former lawyer for allegedly accusing Gingrich of deceiving the ethics committee, according to a report in Le\gal Times.
Members of that committee, meanwhile, have expressed some skepticism about Gingrich's version of events involving Baran. "There's evidence that the mistakes in those letters were clear, known to Mr. Gingrich and obvious," said Rep. Ben Cardin (D.-Md.), one of the four lawmakers on the panel that investigated the issue.
But a malpractice suit against Baran, legal experts said, might not be filed. Such a suit certainly would free Baran from any attorney-client privilege constraints, a prospect that might be daunting to Gingrich, given that nobody knows the details of his business dealings better than his lawyer.
Even in the absence of a lawsuit, however, Baran could be far more talkative when it comes to defending himself, said one observer.
"A lawyer is bound to respect his client's confidence -- with exceptions," said Mark Foster, a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder Goldstein Taylor & Kolker in Washington and a legal ethics specialist. "A lawyer may reveal confidential communications to defend accusations about his conduct. That's why when I heard that Gingrich was attacking his lawyer, I was thinking, Gee Newt, are you sure you want do that?' " Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report. RESUME Jan Baran Current position: Partner in Wiley, Rein & Fielding, concentrating on campaign finance reform Education: Ohio Wesleyan; Vanderbilt Law School Age: 48 Family: Wife, Kathryn, and children Brendan, Mieke, Elise, Anna Hobbies: Playing the violin, gardening, running Recent books read: "Brideshead Revisited," by Evelyn Waugh and "The Trouble With Prosperity," by James Grant Last movie he enjoyed: "Shadowlands," the 1994 film about poet C.S. Lewis Influences in his life: His father, Teddy Roosevelt, George Bush, Ronald Reagan CAPTION: Jan Baran is the Washington attorney who until recently represented Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in a House ethics committee investigation.