The new president of the Legal Services Corp. has negotiated a contract with his former law professor, now the chairman of the board, that gives the president extensive government-financed fringe benefits, including paid membership "in a private club of his choosing."
The board of the corporation was attacked earlier this week for collecting large consulting fees. As criticism mounted yesterday President Reagan said it is "highly unfortunate" that his appointees have been billing the corporation -- the federal program of legal assistance to the poor -- at more than twice the rate of that of any previous board.
"We think the expenses are high," said White House spokesman Larry Speakes. "We'd like to know why."
Speakes said White House counselor Edwin Meese III had asked the Office of Management and Budget to review the matter.
However, Meese told NBC Tuesday night, "I think if people have been working or have special responsibilities where they donate a lot of time and the law provides consulting fees . . . then they should take consulting fees."
Meanwhile, documents obtained by The Washington Post indicate that Donald P. Bogard, who started Monday as president of the Legal Services Corp., has been given substantial benefits in addition to his $57,500 annual salary.
The contract was negotiated by board chairman William F. Harvey, a former law professor of Bogard, without the participation of the other 10 board members, board members said.
Besides the club membership, the contract contains a severance clause that would entitle Bogard to a full year's pay, benefits and expenses if he were fired.
In addition, since Bogard's family prefers not to move to Washington until the end of the school year, the corporation will pay an unlimited amount for his food and lodging, plus two trips a month to Indianapolis until June 15. Round-trip, tourist-class air fare to Indianapolis is $350.
Bogard said yesterday that private club membership has been standard in the contracts of previous Legal Services presidents.
Asked if he will join a club, he said, "I haven't thought about it." Bogard also said he had no comment on Reagan's statement.
Bogard, 41, is an Indianapolis lawyer who spent eight years in the Indiana attorney general's office and then moved to Stokely-Van Camp Inc., where he defended the firm against lawsuits brought by Legal Services Corp. attorneys on behalf of migrant farmworkers.
On Oct. 29, the Legal Services Corp. board voted to authorize a three-man committee of Harvey, board member Howard Dana, and acting president Clint Lyons to negotiate Bogard's contract. Instead, Harvey negotiated it himself, board members said.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a member of the House Judiciary oversight subcommittee, said, "I think that was clearly a violation.. . . The terms of that contract were negotiated improperly--in violation of an explicit vote of the board."
Reagan has twice tried to persuade Congress to eliminate all funding for the Legal Services Corp., saying that the private bar would handle these cases at no charge and at no cost to the government. He named the board members only after Congress rejected his efforts to eliminate the program.
Meanwhile, the corporation has been operating on a reduced budget--25 percent below 1980.
The board is scheduled to meet today to consider changes in regulations to limit the kind of cases that Legal Services attorneys may bring.
According to Legal Services records, Reagan's board members charged consulting fees of $29 an hour, totaling $156,201 for their part-time work for the first 11 months of the year, more than twice the $72,029 that the previous board charged for all of 1981.
Speakes said yesterday that the White House was not aware of the fees until Tuesday, when the matter came up in a House hearing. He said Reagan "expressed the view this morning that he believes it to be highly unfortunate that expenses for the board have apparently doubled over the past year, and it is his hope that future expenses could be reduced to an absolute minimum."
In another matter affecting the corporation, U.S. District Court Judge Norma Holloway Johnson yesterday refused to block Friday's scheduled Legal Services board meeting. A group of former board members had sought to prevent the meeting on grounds that Reagan had withdrawn the nominations of nine recess appointees to the board.
But Johnson said that if the Senate's rights to confirm the appointees "are being abridged . . . there is no reason why the Senate cannot file suit on its own behalf."
Moreover, she said, the president's withdrawal of the nominations does not affect the validity of the recess appointments, which will expire when the lame-duck session of Congress ends.