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It’s time for the State Bar of California to crack down on pay to play. The campaign contributions from Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe to the politicians who award them legal work are a black mark on legal ethics — something the State Bar is supposed to be concerned about. The American Bar Association and the New York City bar have adopted rules against the practice, albeit weak ones. But the State Bar of California has done nothing. At the very least, it ought to put forward a proposal and have some debate. As The Recorder reported this week, Orrick and its employees have contributed $1.3 million to politicians and political parties around the country in the last decade, including $275,000 to California Treasurer Philip Angelides. Angelides and those other government officials have in turn awarded Orrick outside counsel work worth tens of millions of dollars per year — much of it without competitive bidding. Orrick says it’s merely being public spirited — that through its work as bond counsel it has come to know the players, and ought to enjoy the same right as any other corporation to support the best candidates. “We have thought about ending [contributions], but we don’t think withdrawing from the community is the right thing to do,” says Roger Davis, chair of the firm’s public finance practice. Or, as the National Association of Bond Lawyers says in a policy statement, “Participation [in the political process] should not be discouraged and attorneys who participate in municipal finance engagements should not be penalized in comparison to other lawyers or citizens.” But the Securities and Exchange Commission prohibits the other major players in the public finance world — bond brokers and dealers — from contributing money to their appointing authorities. It is, in fact, the lawyers who are getting the special privilege. And there’s good reason for those bans. With millions of dollars in public finance projects at stake, you don’t want the lawyers — whose job it is to ensure that everything is on the up and up — engaging in what looks like bribery. Orrick insists there is never any quid pro quo. The firm says it never makes its contributions contingent on getting bond work. And by all accounts, Orrick is supremely qualified to do bond counsel work. Its excellence in the field is not in doubt. This is not an Oracle situation, where a campaign contributor gets a lucrative contract for something that isn’t valuable. But it still looks bad. And especially in today’s economic climate, it’s foolish to needlessly test the confidence of the financial markets with glaring conflicts like these. Imagine what will happen if an Orrick bond deal does go south someday — everyone will immediately point at the campaign contributions and say it was corruption. Quid pro quos are beside the point. They’re almost impossible to prove, and they’re not a prerequisite for bad government. That’s why conflict of interest laws are on the books. And we need one here. State Bar officials have said many times that one of the organization’s goals is improving the image of lawyers. Ensuring ethical behavior is an express goal of the organization. In keeping with those goals, the Bar ought to restrict the amount of money law firms can contribute to the government officials who hire them as counsel. Or ban the practice altogether.

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