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There are fixers in Washington, and there are fixtures. Fred Fielding is both. The man who, on Feb. 1, will replace Harriet Miers as White House counsel epitomizes the changes that have enveloped the Bush administration since the November elections. During his first six years in the White House, with a Republican Congress in control, President George W. Bush relied on Miers, a detail-oriented Texan and family friend with no prior Washington experience whose greatest asset, it seemed, was unwavering loyalty to her boss. Now, with two years left and half a dozen Democratic-led congressional committees looking to take the administration on, Bush is turning to a man who has worked for many but answered to few and whose roots stretch from the Nixon White House nearly four decades ago up to his own administration, where Fielding was “clearance counsel” for the Bush-Cheney transition team in charge of vetting all top appointments. A large, affable man with a slight Philadelphia accent and an intimate manner of speaking, Fielding is an ultimate insider, known more for political acumen and back-room brokering than vast quantities of technical knowledge on a particular subject. In an interview last week with Legal Times, Fielding said Bush “was aware of the impending possibility of a lot of confrontation with the legislative branch, and he was aware that there was probably a need for a change. He had done all his homework — very thoroughly.” Fielding, 67, says he was approached by the White House for the job just before Christmas. “I was asked if I would consider serving my country again. I am not looking for another line on my r�sum�,” he says. “But I took it very seriously. “Right after the first of the year they asked me if I would meet with the president. I met with him one-on-one for 45 minutes in the residence.” If Fielding’s main job description is responding to congressional requests for information — and determining which requests should be met or resisted — his biggest problem may be confronting those factions of the White House, such as Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, David Addington, who take the most expansive view of executive privilege. “My job is to give my best advice, and that’s what I intend to do — to everybody,” Fielding says. “That’s what I’ve been asked to do.” There is ample evidence that Fielding takes a nuanced, not sweeping, view of executive privilege, a position that has helped him emerge unscathed from past scandals, including the implosion of the Nixon administration and the Iran-Contra affair, which occurred during his five-year stint as then-President Ronald Reagan’s White House counsel. More recently, as a member of the 9/11 Commission, Fielding found himself on the other side, this time arguing for greater access to documents from the Bush White House. A University of Virginia law graduate, Fielding started his government career as an assistant to Nixon White House counsel John Dean 37 years ago. Since then he has served on so many official panels and commissions that his firm biography doesn’t even list them all. He knows many, if not most, of the key White House staffers. “I got to know an awful lot of these people because I was the original vetter during the transition six years ago,” he says. “All the presidential appointments, plus the White House [staff] and all the Cabinet. “And I’ve known Dick Cheney for years. We have a friendly relationship,” he adds. As for White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten, who reportedly argued for Fielding’s hire, “I vetted him down in Texas six years ago,” Fielding says. INSIDE MAN Fielding is also a man whose firm, Wiley, Rein & Fielding, represents as perfect a merging of public policy and corporate America as exists in Washington. Co-founder Richard Wiley is a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and�the firm boasts that it has the country’s biggest telecommunications practice.
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Wiley was general counsel, commissioner, and then chairman of the FCC from 1970 to 1977. He then joined the D.C. office of Kirkland & Ellis but left in 1983 to open his law firm with Bert Rein, a former Nixon-era deputy assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs. They started with 37 lawyers and now have 270. Fielding joined the firm in 1986 after working as Reagan’s White House counsel. The firm’s clients include BellSouth and AT&T. In 2005 it lobbied for, among others, Gannett Co., the Colorado Gaming Association, Nucor Corp., and Motorola. Fielding’s clients include Boeing Co., MeadWestvaco, Molson Coors Brewing Co., the Hershey Co. (where he oversaw some patent work), and a British aerospace company he did not want to name that had some dealings with the State Department. He has also represented UPS — “my oldest client,” he says — for some 20 years. “We did a lot of aviation stuff. They wanted slots in Japan. We dealt with the executive branch, pitching the Transportation Department.” In a new Congress fully aware of public outrage over a too-cozy relationship between lobbyists and members of Congress, Fielding’s “insider” status may carry negative connotations as well. “Congressional Republicans took it on the chin in this last election from the [Jack] Abramoff image that they were too much in bed with special business interests,” says University of Baltimore School of Law professor Charles Tiefer. “And Fielding looks like he presides over the marriage between Republican politicians and special business interests.” Fielding, of course, will have to follow standard federal-government ethics rules; he will sell his stake back to the firm and sever his ties. The firm, in turn, will become simply Wiley Rein. Still, even a dogged public-interest watchdog like Media Access President Andrew Schwartzman doesn’t think Fielding’s client list or his firm’s clients should pose a large problem in terms of offering potential conflicts of interest. “The White House counsel’s job does not get him into a whole lot of regulatory stuff, particularly this White House counsel,” says Schwartzman. “He’s going to be quite preoccupied with fending off Capitol Hill. “As a practical matter, Dick Wiley and Bert Rein are going to be very careful; they’re going to play it by the book,” adds Schwartzman. “The Wiley firm doesn’t need Fred Fielding in there to have connections with Republican leaders.” Fielding has served on everything from the Arbitration Tribunal on U.S.-U.K. Air Treaty Dispute to the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary; he was the court-approved mediator in the Hungarian gold train case. The train, intercepted by the American Army in 1945, contained valuables originally seized from Hungarian Jews, including gold and works of art that fell into American hands and were never returned. A class action that sought restitution from the United States for the victims eventually ended with a $25.5 million settlement in 2005, which Fielding mediated. He was chosen for the job from a list of four people, says Jonathan Cuneo, one of the class counsel. The list included, in addition to Fielding, “two prominent retired senators and a retired governor. “If you had sat in on the first mediation between the class action lawyers and the Justice Department, you would have thought there was no chance for these parties to settle this dispute, there were such extreme differences,” recalls Cuneo, a name partner at Cuneo Gilbert & LaDuca. “Fielding never gave up.” KEEPING CLEAN Fielding’s ability to maneuver through rocky legal terrain and sidestep scandals has earned him longevity in a city known for destroying reputations. When Col. Oliver North — the Reagan official involved in the clandestine sale of weapons to Iran to support the Contra rebels in Nicaragua — tried to claim executive privilege for his actions, he went to the Intelligence Oversight Board, not the White House, for a legal imprimatur, says Tiefer, who served as special deputy chief counsel on the Iran-Contra Committee. “Now why do you suppose North didn’t go to the White House counsel, why he didn’t assert this with White House backing?” Tiefer says. “The answer is Fred Fielding. “Fielding came out of Iran-Contra with a completely clean record because no one involved in the conspiracy and lawbreaking went near him to talk to him,” says Tiefer. He also survived the Nixon administration with no stain, working as an assistant counsel to Dean, then, beginning in 1972, as Dean’s deputy until Dean was fired by Nixon on April 30, 1973. Fielding left the Nixon administration in February 1974, six months before Richard Nixon’s resignation. In 2003, Fielding was fingered by a team of journalism students as the confidential Watergate informant Deep Throat, a charge that many believed until the real Deep Throat, then-FBI agent W. Mark Felt, was revealed in 2005. More recently, Fielding was instrumental in working through document requests with the Bush White House for the 9/11 Commission, says Daniel Marcus, the commission’s general counsel. “As general counsel, I spent half my time negotiating with White House lawyers for access to White House and National Security Council documents. And Fred was one of the commissioners whom I looked to for advice. “Several times we reached a point where we were having difficulty resolving a major issue, and Fred would talk to [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales about it, and it became clear to me that Gonzales had looked to Fielding for advice on how to be counsel to the president,” says Marcus, now a law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law. Fielding also knew the value of strategic concessions, Marcus says, and the commission acted accordingly. For example, White House lawyers insisted that commission members follow their strict instructions for certain documents — insisting that they could only view some documents if they agreed to not take notes or to leave notes with the White House. “Once we conceded that point of principle,” explains Marcus, the commission then got much more than it asked for. “Transcripts of telephone conversations between the president and foreign leaders, they would essentially read them to us,” says Marcus, who didn’t know Fielding before their work on the 9/11 Commission. “Fred will be very good at doing the key thing they are hiring him for — working out deals with the Henry Waxmans and John Dingells and Pat Leahys of the world,” Marcus says.

T.R. Goldman can be contacted at [email protected].

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