A Baltimore Evening Sun editor said yesterday that lawyers for Attorney General Edwin Meese III are trying to charge the government for time they spent seeking retraction of a Sun editorial and for writing an editorial they wanted the paper to publish.
The Sun rejected the attorneys' editorial, which concluded, "Without hair-splitting or resort to legal sophistries, we apologize to Mr. Meese."
In a letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals "strenuously objecting" to reimbursement for such time, editorial page editor Ray Jenkins wrote, "It is important to emphasize that it was Messrs. Wallach and Garment, not this newspaper, who initiated this exchange of telephone calls and correspondence."
Meese's attorneys, Leonard Garment and e. bob wallach, have asked the court to approve reimbursement of $720,924 in legal fees incurred while they defended him during an independent counsel's investigation of his personal finances while serving as White House counsel. Meese was cleared and was confirmed by the Senate as attorney general.
The attorneys' request said that 10 percent to 15 percent of their time defending Meese was "devoted to contacts with the news media."
Jenkins, a former White House press officer in the Carter administration, told the court that it appeared that Meese's lawyers billed the public "several thousands of dollars" for their attempts to force the Sun to publish a retraction of its editorial criticizing Meese.
The Sun refused to publish a retraction but invited the attorneys to write a letter to the editor. Meese's attorneys refused and instead sent a five-paragraph "proposed editorial" to the Sun, which the paper refused to publish.
The four-paragraph Sun editorial stated: "How can the Senate agree to elevate a man to the nation's highest law enforcement post who admits to the same deed for which another public official has been sentenced to jail?" The editorial referred to George V. Hansen, a Republican congressman from Idaho who was convicted of failing to report $334,000 in loans and other transactions on four consecutive financial-disclosure statements.
The "proposed editorial" submitted by Meese's lawyers states: "We were told by Mr. Meese's lawyers that our editorial contained misstatements of fact which, they felt, should be corrected. We agree.
"Our editorial made the mistake of equating the conviction of Congressman Hansen and the issue raised by Mr. Meese's omission to report a personal loan . . . . Congressman Hansen was convicted of intentionally and willfully falsifying his federal disclosure statements in connection with some $450,000 in undisclosed loans. Mr. Meese has consistently maintained that his omission to report a $15,000 loan from a close family friend was wholly inadvertent. There has been no charge, much less a finding, of criminal or even civil wrongdoing in Mr. Meese's case."
In two letters demanding a retraction, Meese's lawyers appeared to suggest a possible libel suit. One, dated June 21, 1984 concluded, "Naturally, we shall reserve all rights with respect to this article and any republications thereof." The other letter, dated June 25, noted that, if the paper published a retraction, the lawyers would "recommend that our client 'close the books' on this matter."
In his letter to the court, Jenkins stated: "I do not believe that the statute which authorizes reimbursement for legal costs in connection with such investigations could possibly envision the payment of fees incurred in responding to newspaper editorials.