Former Utah Attorney General David Wilkinson has won a lawsuit saying he was improperly fired as the inspector general of the Legal Services Corp., a quasi-public agency that distributes federal grants for legal help to the poor.
Federal District Judge Joyce Hens Green in Washington said his firing in 1991 was illegal because the agency's board of directors - which ousted him - had not been properly appointed by President Bush and had violated open meetings laws.Wilkinson as inspector general was responsible for finding waste or fraud at the agency, and he had contended in court that the board fired him because he was pursuing embarrassing matters, including use of grants to keep drug dealers from being evicted from public housing.
Green said that 10 of the agency's 11 board members who voted to oust Wilkinson were "recess appointments" made by Bush when the Senate was in recess and who never had been formally confirmed by the Senate.
She said legislation that created the Legal Services Corp. clearly says, however, that board members serve three years or until the Senate can confirm a replacement.
So she said the board had not been properly appointed and that Wilkinson's firing was invalid.
While unconfirmed recess appointments are allowed in many agencies, Green said it not only violated legislation creating the Legal Services Corp. but also thwarted the goal of insulating it from outside political pressure.
"Hand-picked recess appointees are undeniably accountable to the president" - especially if he can remove them with other recess appointments, she said. But those that are confirmed by the Senate instead "will be able to serve three-year terms relatively free from political influence."
Green has not yet awarded any damages to Wilkinson. She instructed him and Legal Services Corp. to try to work out an agreement for relief, which could range from monetary payments to reinstatement to the job.
Wilkinson was the elected Utah attorney general from 1981 to 1989.