To hear conservative gadfly and attorney Larry Klayman tell it, the end of his legal career haranguing the Washington political establishment could be nigh.
For two contentious days this week, the Judicial Watch founder battled bar ethics charges of “dishonesty, deceit and misrepresentation” over his aggressive drive to join the defense team for Cliven Bundy in a criminal case stemming from the Nevada rancher’s armed standoff with federal authorities in 2014.
D.C. Bar officials contend the famously litigious Klayman misrepresented facts, filed meritless legal pleadings and brought frivolous demands for recusal and an ethics complaint against a judge who rejected the hard-charging lawyer’s bid to join
the defense team at Bundy’s request.
Klayman insists he’s guilty of nothing more than “zealous advocacy” in the episode. But looming over this week’s hearing is a more epic fight between ethics officials, who say he’s made a specialty out of using the legal system to harass his enemies, and Klayman, who contends he’s the victim of a politically motivated crusade to end his decades as a legal pit bull for conservative causes and figures.
During the 1990s, as he headed Judicial Watch, Klayman became reviled by many in the Clinton administration for forcing aides into bizarre, almost post-modern depositions that often led the witnesses to incur tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills. His antics eventually inspired the writers of “The West Wing” to create a toxic, scandal-chasing character, Harry Klaypool of Freedom Watch. Klayman was thrilled and — after a rancorous break-up with other leaders at Judicial Watch — adopted the fictional name from the TV show as the name of his new organization.
While many on the Washington scene have been waiting for decades for Klayman to get his comeuppance in court, three different ethics cases he is now embroiled in raise questions about how to police a legal system that generally imposes few consequences for filing marginal lawsuits and complaints.
That very tolerance opens the door to abuse or harassment, but Klayman contends he is simply using established mechanisms to press biased judges to recuse or impose sanctions on a wayward jurist. He also says that reining in his unorthodox practice would deny representation to clients who often have nowhere else to turn.
“There’s no lawyer in the country who will take on the cases I will take on currently,” Klayman said. “You have to keep trying until you succeed.”
The prosecutor in the Bundy-related ethics case, Julia Porter of the D.C. Bar Office of Disciplinary Counsel, initially pressed for Klayman to be disbarred outright, but later pulled back to a recommendation to suspend him for a year and require him to prove his fitness to return to legal practice.
“She says just a year, a reinstatement provision. I’m 69 years old. You know how long a reinstatement provision takes?” Klayman said. “If the sanction that Ms. Porter is recommending goes into effect, I’ll probably never practice law again.”
The hearing — conducted via Zoom and streamed on the internet over about five-and-a-half hours Monday and Tuesday — was replete with vintage Klayman moments that highlight the no-holds-barred approach that has landed him in the trouble he currently faces.
“This a character assassination. Just say it, Ms. Porter,” Klayman exclaimed. “This is about the way I practice law. She doesn’t like my ideology. She doesn’t like what I do.”
“She’s out for blood. She does not like me,” he declared.
“If you have an objection, you can state that,” Porter lashed back. “It’s not a time for you to give speeches.”
Porter, who sometimes bowed her head and ran her hand through her hair during Klayman’s most energetic outbursts, argued that he has repeatedly crossed the line from vigorous advocacy to filing cases and complaints that are entirely devoid of legal or factual basis. But she reserved her harshest criticism for Klayman’s practice of targeting judges and bar officials with suits, recusal motions and ethics complaints when he finds himself on the losing side of a legal decision.
“They are consistent with Mr. Klayman’s pattern of retaliation and intimidation of people who either act against him or rule against him,” Porter said.
She should know. He’s filed at least three federal lawsuits against Porter and her office over their actions towards him. Two of the suits have been dismissed, although appeals are pending.
Officially, this week’s hearing was not about the substance of the accusation that Klayman bent the truth in his quest to join the Bundy case. Rather, the session was an opportunity for each side to present aggravating and mitigating evidence as the panel mulls what discipline to recommend.
For Klayman, that meant showcasing witnesses who would testify to his character. The result was a cavalcade of right-wing personalities, including two former presidential candidates: ex-Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) and former Ambassador Alan Keyes.
Also singing Klayman’s praises were conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams, author and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi and no fewer than four members of the Bundy family, two of whom appeared to be testifying while sitting in farm equipment.
A key element of Klayman’s defense before the ethics panel was to downplay his Republican ties and emphasize instead that he has sued presidents and other political figures from both major political parties. The second and only slightly less explicit thrust of his defense was that he has many friends and clients who are African American.
“I’ve told people that if I had won, you would have been my choice for attorney general,” Keyes told Klayman during the hearing, beaming in on Zoom from the anchor desk at a television studio.
“You and I have never had an issue when it comes to character, integrity and your honoring your word,” said Williams, who spoke sitting in front of a T-shirt from Dr. Ben Carson’s 2016 presidential campaign. “That I can absolutely say is true, yes. You always honor your word—even as a lawyer, yes.”
“Steadman Graham, you actually were partners with him, that was Oprah’s boyfriend for a while, right?” Klayman asked Williams.
“Yeah….I don’t know why it’s relevant, but it’s true,” Williams said, prompting a visible eye roll and chuckle from the lawyer overseeing the hearing, Buffy Mims.
Klayman also called Dallas police sergeant and GOP congressional candidate Tre Pennie as a character witness. He represented Pennie in an unsuccessful suit that sought to tie shootings of police officers to rhetoric from Black Lives Matter, President Barack Obama, Sen. Hillary Clinton and others.
“How do we refer to each other?” Klayman asked.
“As brothers,” replied Pennie.
At another point, Klayman called the panel’s attention to a recent success: a ruling he won in Manhattan federal court earlier this year allowing former U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore (R-Ala.) to proceed to discovery in a defamation suit against comedian and filmmaker Sacha Baron Cohen.
“An Obama-appointed, African-American judge allowed the case to go forward, a very fair man, Andrew Carter. A very fine judge,” Klayman told the committee.
Klayman never directly explained the relevance of the judge’s race or of Pennie’s, but two of the three members of the bar committee hearing the ethics case are African American and the online biography of the panel’s chairwoman, Mims, prominently describes her as the co-chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee at her law firm.
Klayman’s effort to demonstrate his exemplary character took other unusual turns, as he read from jacket blurbs from his own books and from articles written by his supporters. As always, there was no understatement.
“There were other men like Larry early in American history. Their names were Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Henry,” conservative editor Joseph Farah wrote in a 2004 article Klayman read to the ethics panel Tuesday. “They don’t make ‘em like that any more.”
In his various ethics battles over the years, Klayman has also received some backing from figures closer to the political mainstream and — in one instance — at the other end of the political spectrum.
Ronald Rotunda, the late, widely respected legal ethics authority, wrote a detailed letter defending Klayman and testified on his behalf in one case alleging conflicts-of-interest. Rotunda, who served as Democratic counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee during Watergate and later as an ethics adviser to Whitewater Special Counsel Kenneth Starr, died in 2018.
U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth also took the highly unusual step of testifying on Klayman’s behalf at a 2016 bar hearing. During this week’s hearing, Klayman entered into evidence a 2018 letter the Reagan-appointed judge wrote on Klayman’s behalf supporting his efforts to gain temporary bar admission in a Texas federal court.
“He has had a number of cases before me over my 30 years as a judge, almost from the beginning. Many were quite controversial as well as newsworthy, and some extended for length periods of discovery and motions,” Lamberth wrote. “There is no question that Mr. Klayman is a zealous advocate for his client and his cause, but I also have no question regarding his fitness to practice law.”
A leading liberal constitutional law expert, University of California at Berkeley law dean Erwin Chemerinsky also testified on Klayman’s behalf earlier in the ethics case stemming from the Bundy prosecution. The esteemed law professor concluded there was no ethical violation by Klayman in the Bundy case, Klayman told the panel. (Chemerinsky confirmed to POLITICO Tuesday that he testified for Klayman, but the professor said he could not recall the details.)
While many view Klayman as an early pioneer of the use of the legal system as a political weapon, he seemed to lament that phenomenon during this week’s session, rueing what he called “the age of the politics of personal destruction” in an ironic echo of a famous Bill Clinton line.
“We live in an atmosphere that is so polarized that anyone who doesn’t agree with you becomes an enemy of the state and should be removed from the practice of law,” Klayman complained.
Klayman claimed repeatedly during the hearing that he is being targeted by liberal lawyers who are going after Trump supporters and conservatives. However, he also has engaged in pitched legal battles with top figures in Trump world, like Roger Stone and Health and Human Services spokesman Michael Caputo.
A deposition of Stone Klayman conducted in February in connection with a series of libel cases produced a slew of bitter, nasty exchanges between the two men, who worked together briefly on Klayman’s unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate from Florida in 2004.
Stone, who seemed enamored of Klayman’s tactics when they were directed at Democrats, was considerably less enthused about being interrogated by the former federal prosecutor.
“Let’s go,” Stone said at one point, seeming to gesture at Klayman to fight him. “I don’t have to be badgered by this asshole.”
The danger for Klayman at present is not so much the Bundy-related complaint but the series of ethics cases he faces taken together. Bar ethics officials say the record is mounting that Klayman is unfit to practice.
“They’re piling on, one after another,” he complained Tuesday.
Klayman is currently serving a three-month D.C. bar suspension for pursuing cases against Judicial Watch, which he left in 2003, on behalf of several of its ex-clients. In July, another hearing committee also a recommended 33-month suspension for alleged “misconduct” involving pursuing a romantic relationship with a client. He has complained that the findings were politicized.
Klayman told the panel Tuesday that he would not handle some of the legal matters the same way if he had another chance, but he said he had no regrets about the tactics he used to try to get permission to represent Bundy in the criminal case. “I tried to fight my way in,” he acknowledged. “You can’t be a wallflower, particularly in today’s world.”
Klayman also asked for leniency by saying he serves as a lawyer of last resort for many of his clients. That seemed to strike a chord with Mims, the panel chairwoman, who asked one witness whether suspending Klayman from legal practice could limit some clients’ ability to find representation.
The other panel members, former Federal Trade Commission deputy general counsel Christian White and prisoner rehabilitation advocate Robin Bell, occasionally broke out bemused smiles at some of Klayman’s antics but were generally silent during the hearing. The panel will vote on a proposed sanction for Klayman, but the case will then go to a larger bar board and eventually to the D.C. Court of Appeals for final resolution.
Porter suggested that Klayman was often providing poor quality counsel by missing court deadlines and filing meritless cases. She also said that being a zealous advocate was only one obligation of an attorney and Klayman was flouting many of the others.
“Mr. Klayman’s conduct not only in the underlying matter but in these discipline proceedings confirm that he is unable to comply with his ethical obligation as an officer of the court,” she said. “You can’t use the litigation process of courts to retaliate and intimidate. … Politics really has nothing to do with it.”