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Jewish World Review Aug. 17, 1999 /5 Elul, 5759

Paul Greenberg

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This is not a parody -- WHAT'S THIS, Webb Hubbell asked to address the American Bar Association? Yep, he was a guest of its White Collar Crime Committee at the ABA's convention in Atlanta. Well, he does have an undeniable expertise in that field. It's as if the American Bankers Association had asked Willie Sutton to share his wisdom.

Clearly, it was a mix-up: With his remarkable record at managing not to pay his taxes, Mr. Hubbell should have been asked to conduct a seminar in tax law instead. Doesn't the American bar respect a man's legal specialty any more?

At last count, the former Arkansas judge, Little Rock mayor and Third-Highest Official at the Justice Department had rung up some $761,123 in unpaid taxes, give or a take a few hundred thou, although that's not counting the $54,000 he could owe Arkansas and the $78,000 that Washington, D.C., may be due.

It's an impressive record. Especially when you think of all the poor suckers who work hard, live by the rules and have to make up the taxes the Webb Hubbells don't pay. Mr. Hubbell may be this decade's leading exemplar of the Leona Helmsley Doctrine of tax law. ("We don't pay taxes; the little people pay taxes.'')

Nevertheless, the bar's learned guest wasn't asked to share a few tricks of the tax trade while on the premises. Talk about a wasted opportunity.

Of course, Mr. Hubbell's expertise is not limited to tax matters. Think about all those tax-free consulting fees he collected after stealing from his clients and law partners and friends at the Rose firm in Little Rock. With his record, surely the bar association could have found a place for him on the panel discussing Legal Ethics and Other Oxymorons.

Just imagine the things any law students in attendance could have picked up from such a presentation. What a chance to mold the next generation of lawmakers and/or lawbreakers. Whoever is in charge of drawing up the program for the bar's conventions really missed a bet.

But here's the shocking part -- what Webb Hubbell told reporters. He revealed that prosecutors looking into the late Vince Foster's suicide "were asking if there were anything between he and Hillary. ...''

Just between we, the man really ought to watch his language. He seems to have the subjunctive down pat ("if there were. ...'') but he needs work on his nominative and objective cases ("between he and Hillary). That sort of thing is dang-near criminal. And worse, pretentious.

There is a certain kind of speaker who uses subjects when objects are called for under the assumption that it's correct, or at least tonier, and he should be subject to the stiffest penalties. They ought to throw the book at him, namely Henry Fowler's.

Or does anybody consult Fowler any more? Probably not, at least not the original 1926 edition of his "Modern English Usage,'' which was replaced by an impostor circa 1996 and has been a subversive influence ever since. It was like replacing a Rembrandt with a Jackson Pollock.

So let Webb Hubbell be an object (and subject) lesson to us all: Begin innocently enough by concealing a little work on a fraudulent Arkansas land deal, plead guilty to another crime or two, and soon you're mauling prepositional phrases in broad daylight.

To lay hands on the law is one thing, to molest the English language quite another. People just don't have their priorities right anymore. And now the American Bar Association is encouraging this sort of verbal laxity. Yes, shocking.

Mr. Hubbell's attorney was also on hand (some folks should never go anywhere without one), and he had a beef with the system, too. "We have somehow let our criminal justice system get into the hands of the press and politicians,'' he complained.

Gosh, and here some of us thought the trouble was that the system had been entrusted to lawyers. For you can tell the state of a profession by those it chooses to honor as guests at its conventions.

Some enterprising publisher ought to put out the complete text of both Mr. Hubbell's and his distinguished counsel's remarks in one volume, perhaps under the title, This Is Not a Parody. It had to be an historic occasion, having The Hon. Webster Hubbell III speak at the bar's annual convention. It's as if, late in 1974, the American Bar Association had invited a prominent member of the Nixon Gang to educate its convention. That old line about the press and politicians taking over the system does have a familiar nixonesque, even agnewesque, ring.

Yes, you can learn an awful lot, and I mean awful, at meetings of the American Bar Association.

What with Webb Hubbell gracing its annual convention, one can understand why the bar is putting up such a vigorous fight against letting CPAs practice law. They would just get in the way, what with all their niggling notions about paying taxes.

Mr. Hubbell is going to be a hard act to top. One wonders who'll be featured on next year's program. Hillary Rodham Clinton on the care and handling of billing records? Her spouse on the contempt powers of federal judges? No, the bar anticipated me on that count; our impeachable and certifiably contemptuous president has already given the keynote at this year's convention.

Maybe the bar could hear from our attorney general, Ms. Magoo herself, on what a fine job the FBI has done protecting our nuclear secrets, or on how to stake out compounds like the Branch Davidians' burnt-out territory outside Waco. Yes, the ABA's guest list offers all kinds of exciting possibilities. Good taste may have its limits, but bad is boundless.

And to think, the American Bar Association was once concerned about preserving the reputation of lawyers.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate