In the middle of the Super Bowl last Sunday, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr partners Reginald Brown and Jennifer O'Connor were contacted by the Texas-based nonprofit Liberty Legal Institute. The group wanted to know if the two lawyers could take on a suddenly high-profile client: an Amarillo, Texas, construction worker, Jim Allen, one of 10 American Baptists held in a Port-au-Prince jail and charged with allegedly abducting 33 Haitian children.
Allen and his fellow missionaries were arrested on Jan. 30 after they were found to have taken the children across the border into the Dominican Republic. Until Tuesday evening, neither Allen nor the rest had been allowed to communicate with their families or outside counsel.
"The whole thing has just been a colossal misunderstanding," says Brown, vice chair of Wilmer's public policy and strategy group.
On Tuesday, Brown and O'Connor, a former senior Clinton Administration aide, wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking her to intervene in the matter.
"Without questioning the integrity of the individuals involved in the Haitian judicial system," the pair wrote, "we think it is clear that the unprecedented situation that exists in Haiti now requires a response beyond what would be expected in the ordinary course." The lawyers asked Clinton to push Haitian authorities to allow access to Allen by his wife and lawyers -- and to ask for the same to apply to the other detainees. On Tuesday evening, Allen was permitted to talk to his wife via cell phone.
Brown says the group has assembled what he called a "dream team" for Allen that now includes Wilmer government affairs partner Benjamin Powell; Jackson Walker associate Amanda Bush and Mullin Hoard & Brown's Jeffrey Ritter in Amarillo; Liberty Legal's Hiram Sasser; and local counsel Louis Gary Lissade in Port au Prince. (Lissade is a former Minister of Justice and two-time president of the Haitian Bar Association; Bush is married to former President George W. Bush's eldest nephew, George P. Bush; and Powell is the former general counsel for the Director of National Intelligence under Presidents Bush and Obama.)
"The irony is not lost on us that there are Americans in a Haitian prison that is effectively able to operate because of the U.S. military presence there, and they haven't even been allowed contact with their families or lawyers," Brown told The Am Law Daily.
Meanwhile, nearby in Washington, D.C., Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney's David Taylor, a veteran government contracts lawyer, got a call of his own last Sunday. This one came on behalf of a Pittsburgh residential facility for children, Holy Family Institute, and some Haitian orphans presently living there. Thanks to the efforts of Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and others, the children had been flown by military transport to Pittsburgh Children's Hospital after their Port-au-Prince orphanage collapsed during the quake. Most of the airlifted orphans eventually wound up in the institute's care.
The orphans entered the country under a Homeland Security emergency humanitarian program dubbed "Pierre Pan," which allows Haitian children into the country on a temporary basis. The program -- under which the federal government is technically the legal custodian of the children -- only applies to those who have been legally confirmed as orphans and are in the process of being adopted by U.S. citizens. Some 18 have already been adopted in the past few weeks since their arrival.
Unlike the group being held in Haiti, the institute is a state-licensed orphanage. Because the institute has no prior relationship with the federal government, it must navigate an unfamiliar bureaucracy in order to be reimbursed for the children's care. Taylor is helping smooth the way on this, with assistance from other Buchanan lawyers in Pittsburgh.
The feds are keeping a close eye on the institute, says Buchanan CEO John "Jack" Barbour: A Homeland Security staffer is on the premises to ensure that the Haitian children are kept apart from U.S. children housed there. As Taylor notes, the controversy surrounding the group with which Jim Allen is affiliated has made both the Haitian and U.S. governments extremely sensitive to the need for proper procedure with regard to Haitian children. The U.S. government is "just being super-careful," Taylor says, adding that the State Department and other agencies "just don't want any adverse publicity."
Interestingly, this isn't the first time Taylor, 66, has been tapped for a Haitian matter. In the 1970s, Taylor was asked to advise the Haitian government pro bono on how to comply with demands by the Inter-American Development Bank in securing a loan to build a major roadway out of the capitol Port-au-Prince. In order to get funding, the government of Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as "Baby Doc," had to show progress on human rights.
On Thursday, the Haitian judge handling the case said Thursday that the 10 Americans held in jail on child abduction charges should be released but must remain in the country pending a final ruling in the case, according to The New York Times.
This article first appeared on The Am Law Daily blog on AmericanLawyer.com.
For more Law.com coverage of the effort to help Haiti, click here.