Presidential counselor Edwin Meese III defended Reagan-appointed members of the Legal Services Corp. board yesterday against charges of collecting excessive consulting fees and said they may have met more frequently than previous boards.
Meese also argued that the controversy would not have happened if the federal legal services system for the poor had been abolished as President Reagan proposed.
"Frankly, the whole problem with the Legal Services Corp. is none of this should have gone on," Meese told reporters at a White House briefing on administration efforts to reduce waste and inefficiency in government.
"There shouldn't be a Legal Services Corp.," he said, "and I think that it is very clear that if you did away with the Legal Services Corp. and turned it over to the professional bar assocations of the country, who could do it far better with far greater coverage of poor people and far less cost, the whole country would be better off."
Meese said a final report on an Office of Management and Budget investigation of the board's consulting fees and the contract awarded Donald Bogard, the new president of the agency, will be completed next week. He said a preliminary report on the charges has not found any impropriety.
A group of seven house Republicans also has sent a letter to Reagan demanding that a federal prosecutor be appointed to investigate the charges and to recover all fees paid to board members. Legal Services documents indicate that the board collected more than $186,000 in consulting fees in the first 11 months of 1982, more than twice the rate of any previous board. The board members also collected $80,000 in expenses.
Meese added that a new interim board will be appointed today or Saturday. Earlier this month, Reagan withdrew nominations he made to the 11-member board after he received word from the Senate that some of the nominees would not be confirmed because some senators believed those Reagan nominees were committed to destroying Legal Services.
Most of Reagan's nominees had served for a year under special recess appointments that expired yesterday when Congress adjourned. Anyone named to the board during the current congressional recess also would be able to serve without Senate confirmation until Congress adjourns next year.
"The preliminary report indicates that the main reason why the consulting fees were higher are for two reasons," said Meese, a former prosecutor who tried to eliminate the California legal services program while on Reagan's gubernatorial staff.
"One is that Congress increased the daily per diem . . . and secondly that the Legal Services board, as was pointed out in congressional testimony during the course of the past week, held about three times as many meetings as their predecessors because they are trying to straighten out the mess."
Reagan and Meese have argued that private lawyers, in the spirit of volunteerism, have an obligation to take cases for the poor free of charge and there is no need for a publicly funded group to represent the poor.
"The message we are trying to get over," Meese said, "is that we ought to be providing legal services to the poor not at taxpayers expense. This is something that is a professional responsiblity, and when taxpayers' money is used up for any reason in overhead expenses this is a bad thing as far as legal services is concerned. That's why you shouldn't have a corporation."
However, officials of the American Bar Association have been strong supporters of the program, and have testified frequently before Congress that the private bar is unable to take care of the legal needs of the poor.
Meese contended the contract negotiated by Bogard is a "duplicate" of contracts for past presidents of the corporation. Bogard's contract included paid membership "in the private club of [his] choice," and severance agreement of a full year's $57,500 salary as well as expenses and benefits.
But Legal Services sources said the severance provision was more than doubled for Bogard. They added that while some previous contracts provided club membership, it was rarely used.
Meese said the severance pay provision in Bogard's contract was justified by the risk he took in accepting the job from a board whose members had not been confirmed by the Senate.
Earlier this week in final action on its stopgap spending bill, Congress included an amendment to restrict severely consultant fees for board members, to forbid payment for membership in a private club for Bogard, and to limit any severance fee for Bogard to the level of fees allowed other federal employes. A spokesman for the Office of Personnel Management said that is one week for every year of federal service.
When asked if he thought the fees charged were appropriate Meese replied, "Congress provided a consulting fee for these people. This is not pro bono work."
He later added that Bogard's contract was not too extravagant. "The salary is certainly not a very high salary," Meese said, "but my concern is that it is still too large because we shouldn't have a corporation or need a president."