The FBI and three lawyer's groups including one in the District -- had longstanding agreements to share information about bar applicants, according to a report to be published today by the National Law Journal, a weekly newspaper for lawyers.
According to the Journal, documents released by the FBI show that the bureau gave information on individuals from 1936 through 1976 to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, a private Chicago-based group that researches the backgrounds of applicants for state bar associations. The files of the conference also were available to the FBI, according to the newspaper.
An FBI spokesman said the bureau is researching the charges and will have a statement sometime this week. "We don't know what the Journal has, so how can we respond to them?" said special agent Manuel Marquez. "We know what we supplied the court, but we don't know what the newspaper has."
According to the documents, information also was shared with the "character committees" of the District and Manhattan bar associations.
There are two separate bar associations in the District -- the 114-year-old, voluntary Bar Association of the District of Columbia, and the 13-year-old, mandatory D.C. Bar. The newspaper does not specify which of the two bodies had the agreement to share information with the FBI. The mandatory bar is too young to have had a longstanding agreement; a past president of the voluntary group said it has no "character committee." Past officials of both groups said that they were unaware of any such agreement.
According to the newspaper, the president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners discontinued in 1976 that group's routine requests to the FBI for information, citing privacy concerns. The newspaper says that an FBI memo sent to the conference the following day, however, states that information would still be shared on items of "mutual interest."
Sumner T. Bernstein, of Portland, Maine, current chairman of the conference, said the documents show that "it is entirely possible there was some exchange of information" in past years, but said he believes there is no exchange today. "We're not a state agency," he said. "Under the law, there is no way we are entitled to FBI information."
He said the conference checks the schools and references cited by candidates on their 16-page application and then checks with the American Bar Association's Discipline Bank for any mention of a candidate.
The documents were released by the FBI as part of the discovery process in a New York lawsuit brought against the government by the National Lawyers Guild, which was founded in 1937 as an alternative to the American Bar Association and is charging decades of harassment by the FBI.
According to the newspaper, the documents indicate that Edward A. Tamm, a former FBI official who was appointed as a federal district judge in 1948 and is now a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District, served as liaison between the FBI and the District bar character committee.
Tamm could not be reached for comment.
Jim Jordan, a past president of the voluntary District bar association, said all local applications are sent to the National Conference of Bar Examiners for processing. "We don't have any character committee," he said.
The mandatory D.C. Bar also does not pass on the fitness of candidates, and relies instead on a committee appointed by the D.C. Court of Appeals that monitors admission, said past president Marna Tucker. The lawyers column has been suspended. It will be resumed in the rear future.