Ashcroft friend, adviser signed up OKC victims with promise of winning federal aid

Thursday, August 1st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A longtime friend and adviser to Attorney General John Ashcroft signed up Oklahoma City bombing survivors as clients with a promise to use his connections to win them government compensation in exchange for 10 percent to 27.5 percent of the proceeds, according to court documents and interviews.

About 120 survivors and victims' relatives from the 1995 bombing signed up for the lobbying campaign, which fell apart last month amid lawsuits and an ethics complaint involving the organizers. The intent was to win a share of the hundreds of millions set aside for families of Sept. 11 victims, the documents and participants say.

The Ashcroft friend, attorney Charles Polk, has had occasional contact with senior Justice officials, including Ashcroft, adviser David Israelite and Sept. 11 fund administrator Kenneth Feinberg, Justice officials said.

But officials were unaware he was soliciting business from Oklahoma City victims, Justice spokeswoman Barbara Comstock said Thursday.

``No one in the attorney general's office, including the attorney general himself, had any idea that Charles Polk was working on any legal matters related to Oklahoma City victims or that Polk had a financial interest,'' Comstock said.

Polk said in a statement released by his attorney that he worked as a lobbyist along with two other partners in an attempt to win compensation for the Oklahoma victims, but he never discussed it with Ashcroft and cleared all his actions in advance with lawyers.

``We operated under the assumption that we were in compliance with all applicable laws,'' Polk's statement said.

Some of those who worked with Polk say the St. Louis attorney suggested to them that Ashcroft's department supported the idea of extending the compensation Congress set up for Sept. 11 victims to the Oklahoma City families.

``He did say the Department of Justice felt there was probably an injustice and it would probably administratively happen, but it wasn't for certain,'' said Kathleen Treanor, an Oklahoma City woman who lost her 4-year-old child and inlaws in the explosion on April 19, 1995, which killed 168 people. She joined the effort to sign up victims for the campaign.

Polk managed to get some of the Oklahoma victims a private audience with Feinberg, the lawyer Ashcroft picked to administer the Sept. 11 compensation fund, which is expected to pay out as much as $1.8 million to individual families who lost loved ones in the suicide attacks.

``I told them I'd be glad to process their claims if Congress decided to expand the program,'' Feinberg said. ``But I told them it was entirely up to Congress.''

Victims who wanted to sign onto the venture, which also included a second lawyer and an Illinois businessman, were asked to sign forms.

The initial form called for paying ''27.5 percent, plus expenses, of any amounts recovered,'' according to court records. The proposed fee was later adjusted to as little as 10 percent when it appeared there would be no need for litigation to win compensation for Oklahoma families, organizers said.

Polk told ``us of all the people he was in contact with and knew and had worked with and helped,'' said Roy Sells, who lost his wife in the bombing and signed on to be represented by Polk's venture.

James Helenthal, a publisher of an Illinois shopping newspaper who partnered with Polk on the campaign and then had a falling out, alleges in a lawsuit that Polk told him in March that Ashcroft had encouraged the venture to help Oklahomans.

``Mr. Polk told Mr. Helenthal that he ... had gotten the nod from key government officials on this, that they wanted him to get this deal and all he really needed to was go out there and sign them up,'' the suit alleges.

The suit was filed last week in St. Louis County, Missouri, after an earlier suit was thrown out in Illinois. Helenthal alleges he is owed hundreds of thousand of dollars from the venture. Polk also has sued Helenthal.

Polk called Helenthal's allegations a ``transparent attempt to create political pressure on me.''

``I never met with or talked to Attorney General Ashcroft regarding anything to do with Oklahoma City,'' he said.

Polk is a longtime friend from Ashcroft's days as a U.S. senator from Missouri and helped advise the attorney general during his contentious Senate confirmation hearing in early 2001.

Justice officials said that Polk talks occasionally to Ashcroft's staff on matters such as preparing for appearances on TV news show and that it was possible he made some inquiries about the compensation fund.

Helenthal's lawsuit alleges Polk suggested that Israelite, a key Ashcroft adviser inside Justice, told him ``that it looked better and better for the OKC victims to be added to the legislation'' assuring them of compensation.

Comstock said Israelite disputes that he made such a statement, but recalls Polk ``did geneally speak about his views that Oklahoma City should be eligible for the victims' fund.'' She said Israelite was unaware of Polk's represention or financial arrangement.

While Ashcroft's department administers the Sept. 11 victims' fund, it cannot expand the money to Oklahoma City victims without congressional approval. Lawmakers are considering the idea.

Helenthal and Polk formed a venture called Fairness for OKC and wrote an agreement to split up any proceeds they won _ 55 percent to Polk, 45 percent to Helenthal, according to documents in the Helenthal lawsuit.

A third partner was brought into the venture, St. Louis attorney Douglas Dowd, whose has connections to prominent Democrats, including House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt.

Dowd was to handle any litigation, Polk would handle lobbying in Washington and Helenthal was to handle marketing, according to Treanor and Polk's attorney.

Polk said he and Helenthal relied on Dowd's ``expertise as an attorney to make sure all legal matters were appropriately handled.''

But Dowd's attorney, Maurice Graham, said Thursday his client never approved ``the bulk of'' the contracts Oklahoma City victims were asked to sign and that Dowd has since filed an ethics complaint against Polk in Missouri.

The venture reached out to Treanor, a well-known activist among Oklahoma City families, to set up meetings with victims who might want to sign up to have Fairness for OKC represent them in winning compensation.

According to documents in Helenthal's lawsuit, Treanor initially proposed she be paid $5,000 a month for her assistance. ``I believe that I will be a very valuable asset to you over the course of this assignment,'' Treanor wrote to Polk and Helenthal on April 5.

Treanor said she originally suggested the consulting fee, but Helenthal then hired her to work directly for his Illinois newspaper company. She said she was paid for that work and believes she did the victims' work for free.

Treanor said she talked with dozens of survivors.

``I told them they could sign if they chose to, and if they had any questions I'd put them to the attorneys,'' she said. ``I didn't see anything wrong here. I signed one myself. In no way shape or form did I ever coerce anyone.''

Bud Welch, whose daughter died in the Oklahoma City bombing and didn't sign up with the Polk venture, said survivors should have access to the Sept. 11 fund without having to pay lawyers. ``That should not be taking place. It's unfortunate that it is,'' Welch said.